When my daughter was born, I was already an orphan. Both my parents had passed away several years before (and my husband was at odds with his mother and his father died when our daughter was just two), but I wanted her to experience being loved, mentored and just plain spoiled by grandparents all the same.
First, I needed to create a bond between my daughter and my late parents. I assembled a photo album of old photos and typed up captions. Beneath a picture of my mom wearing a black velvet dress, circa 1950s, I wrote, “All dolled up. Isn’t she pretty?” A caption on a photo of my father and me said “Wheee! I loved being tossed in the air by my dad, just like you liked it.”
I’ve also kept my parents’ memories alive with photos throughout our home, relating funny stories and their favourite sayings, sharing life advice they gave me, displaying my mother’s crewel work (which hangs framed in our living room) and using recipes my mom used.
We talk about the Austrian lullaby my husband’s father used to sing to my daughter. And we read bedtime stories to her when she was small that my parents read to me.
I’ve never missed an occasion to point out similarities between my daughter and her grandparents — both physical, such as my dad’s tall, lanky frame and in personality and interests, including my mom’s love for fashion.
I also determined she would have my friends and relatives around to provide her with love and wisdom.
Many of these relatives I’ve socialized with over the years are first, second and even third cousins. We share a common ancestry, but we are much more than that. We are friends who celebrate family gatherings and holidays together and post pictures and comments on Facebook.
My mom’s first cousin, Judy, who died not long ago, was like a mother to me and a grandmother to our daughter; my best friend’s mom became “Granny Lyons.”
What I’ve discovered since my daughter was born is that even though grandparents may be missing from a child’s life, we can compensate. All of these friends and family have gathered around my daughter to form a protective, loving circle so that she’ll never feel alone. My daughter considers herself lucky. Instead of two sets of grandparents, she has several.
Dr. Esme Fuller-Thomson is the Sandra Rotman Endowed Chair and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. From her own practice and as the mother of four children, she has some tips for parents who are raising children without grandparents, many of which our family used.
- Start as soon as your child is born to give him or her a sense of being part of a loving, extended family.
- Encourage children to build connections with older adults, such as helping a neighbour to shovel the snow.
- Invite older adults over on holidays and encourage their participation in your child’s life. This helps children build meaningful connections with older adults.
- Ask a friend or relative to be your child’s special aunt or uncle and play a part of your child’s life and important events, including school concerts and graduations.
- Contact senior associations/organizations and offer to volunteer with your children.
- Hang pictures of relatives or paintings from their homes and tell stories connected with them. If you have old films and videos, show them to your children.
- Spot mannerisms that your child possesses that a grandparent also had. “Children get a sense of how you feel about a person by how you talk about them,” she says.
- Encourage and call attention to family traditions, such as “Grandma baked this particular pie; it was her special recipe.”
- If children feel left out because others have a grandparent and they don’t, acknowledge it and agree that it’s not fair. But also let them know that their grandparents would have adored them “and that they’re watching you and cheering you on,” says Dr. Fuller-Thomson.
- Above all, realize that there are older people out there who would very much welcome and nourish a special relationship with a younger person. “It’s the idea of having older people who treasure you — you can’t have too many of those,” she says.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, September 2015. Photo by iStockphoto.