Apparently 5 million people in the UK see their grandparents less than twice a year. I'll be honest – my first thought was "And why's that such a Big Deal?"
My children see their grandparents very irregularly – I am estranged from my own parents, and we live 200 miles from my in-laws, so we don't see them for months at a time. They tend to visit during school holidays, stay on a friend's farm in their caravan and be in 'popping in' distance for weeks at a time, before they're gone again.
And I'm quite comfortable with that – we do not have a very close relationship with them, and we're very content being 'just us' in this life we have built around our family. I'll admit that as parents we have occasionally keenly noticed the lack of physical parental support locally – we have no easy (free!) babysitters, no one who can drop everything for an emergency school run or help out with the laundry when illness strikes.
But this week I began thinking about it not from my own, rather selfish point of view, but from my children's. Am I doing them a disservice being so content with this distant relationship they have with their grandparents? Are they missing out on an important relationship?
My husband was incredibly close to his grandmother – his parents and grandparents shared a house, and he grew up with his grandmother as a second mother figure. He adored her, and though she died nine years ago not a day goes by that he doesn't miss her, or be thankful for their relationship.
A quick canvas of friends told me that (as I suspected) the relationship our children have with our parents is entirely dependent on the relationship we ourselves have with them.
Jo's garden runs straight on to the back of her Mum's – and she loves the closeness.
"I could never move away. It's wonderful (though I still get lectures like I'm 12) and a huge comfort. I hate not seeing her, and often wonder how people could move far away from their mums. She takes the kids to school and often picks them up. She buys stuff for me when she is at the shop just because she knows I'm out and won't have time. She does the washing and ironing and some general cleaning because she is around during the day while I'm working. She looked after my kids when I went back to work - she is like their second mum."
Of course, not all grandparents are created equal. Because the age ranges enormously in modern society (could be early 30a, could be 90) some will be working while others retired years before. Some grandparents, like Jane's, are still right next door in a traditional support situation – but just as frequently they will be across the country (if not in another country altogether). There's just no one-size-fits-all description for the modern grandparent/grandchild relationship
The flip side of Jo's closeness was Liz's total lack of parental support
"My (ex) In-laws live in the same town as my two children, their grandchildren. They probably bother with them once a month, if that. They were so unreliable and reluctant to babysit we gave up asking and had to pay for babysitters.
They have never been to a school concert/play/service or anything else, and only visit for birthdays if they happen to be doing nothing else.
"I wouldn't dare ask for help in an emergency; they wouldn't come over and help when both kids were tiny and I went down with a serious illness, I was just left to cope alone. The only people I know that are worse are my own parents, who actually charge my sister money for babysitting... No kidding you..."
It seemed (in my incredibly scientific friends-canvassing) that there are two camps – either a close parent/child relationship naturally leads to a close grandparent/child relationship, or else distant and difficult communication with parents had immediate consequences with the grandchildren too.
But Kate is a lone voice striking a middle ground.
"We have made a deliberate effort to foster these relationships right from the start, as we both for various reasons didn't have close relationships with our own grandparents and felt we missed out. The children's relationship with Mark's parents is pretty straightforward; very loving and involved, and they help out a lot since we moved 30 minutes away (the perfect distance!).
"The relationship with their other granny (my mother) is trickier - they have a good relationship and both sides adore each other. But my own relationship with my mother is pretty pants (although very polite on the surface), and I find it hard to let her and my children be close because I have so many issues and hidden resentments. However I'm determined not to let it affect her relationship with my kids as there's no reason why that can't be a good one. So I do successfully hold back, and let things be good with them. Hard sometimes though!"
And that made me feel rather selfish and immature. I know my in laws adore my children – their only grandchildren – so why am I happy for the current rather cool relationship? My children love their grandparents in the abstract, but do find spending lengths of time with them to be a trifle stifling, and never yearn for their company.
Have we made it happen that way? Or is that a natural evolution of a relationship with an admittedly eccentric old-for-their-age couple?
My friend Chloe suggested that it gets harder as children get older, and the relationship can quickly slide into being more for the grandparents benefit, becoming a chore for the child.
I heard the amazing Mary Berry on the radio a few months ago, discussing how her grandchildren call and text her to complain about favourite contestants leaving the Great British Bake Off. It was an amusing story, but the part that grabbed my attention was that her teenage grandchildren were texting and spontaneously phoning her. What a brilliant relationship they must have – helped I'm sure by the fact that she has worked at maintaining that by communicating through a medium they find easy. I cannot for one second imagine my in laws texting my children.
I also wonder if a closer geographical location (though not next door – that's far too close for me!) would actually place less strain on the relationship, as the children wouldn't see them for such intensive blocks as they do now – visiting for an afternoon regularly would be much easier than being comfortable in 'our' life and then having them abruptly HERE for weeks at a time.
Gangy and Bumpa arriving is a big 'occasion' and the children are expected to sit and chat and be in attendance, which places a large best-behaviour pressure on them while their contented lives are suddenly invaded.
If the relationship was deeper, it would be more relaxed, and both generations would actually see the very best in each other.
So this year we are determined to be more committed to visiting regularly. We do feel it's important to allow the children to get to know their grandparents as people, rather than simply as 'old' people. It would make the grandparents very happy to see the children more often, and there's a chance that in doing so we'll foster a valuable and important deeper relationship between them.
Have you made special efforts to foster relationships between your children and your parents? Or are they naturally a bit part of each others' lives?