and Mary Jane Sterne
Baby Owen will be born any day now. He will be a member of the coronavirus cohort, affectionately known as “coronials” and he will be my sixth great-grandchild.
Although I abandoned the practice of active religion decades ago, I find myself praying a lot these days. Please God and Mother Nature grant his mother Jordyn a healthy, respectful and safe delivery and recovery in these extraordinary times. Please God and Mother Nature, grant Owen health and happiness, an easy birth and a safe, loving return home after confinement in hospital.
When I became a great grandmother for the first time, I struggled with my new identity until I realized that my role was essentially the same as a grandmother—to provide unconditional love to this miracle of life and non-judgmental support to his parents in their role as the primary caregivers and navigators of Owen’s growth and development.
As a seasoned great grandmother, I was anticipating the joy that comes with the birth of a new baby. But something was wrong. I knew I would be unable to hold Owen in my arms, to nestle-in for that intoxicating baby smell, to gently touch his soft, downy head, to marvel at his wrinkles (a bit like mine),to laugh with joy when he grasps my finger as if he already knows we are destined for each other, and to cradle him in my protective and loving embrace.
This is the age of the COVID-19 pandemic when up-close contact (less than six feet) and physical touch is deemed unsafe for both baby and grandparent. While I understand these rules, they make me feel sad. I desperately miss hugging with my other grandchildren. The thought of not being able to hold baby Owen is breaking my heart.
“You must be resilient and positive,” I say to myself. “You can use Zoom and Facetime and Skype to connect with the grandchildren and baby Owen.” Somehow, I couldn’t believe it would be as good.
And then I talked with two other grandmothers who are using these technologies to connect with a new great grandchild and a toddler granddaughter. Their stories are remarkable, not just for what they say about the amazing ability of very young children to recognize the voice and face of a loving grandmother, but also what they say about the very special relationship of a grandparent and grandchild.
Mary Jane, my friend and co-author is isolated at her cottage in Quebec, seeming far away from her grandchildren in Ottawa, Austin and Pittsburgh, and her seven–month-old great granddaughter Josephine, who lives in Kingston with her devoted parents Alexa and Kieran. “Through Facetime I talk with the older grandchildren more than before,” says Mary Jane, “but the magic is in my exchanges with baby Josephine and her mother. Alexa holds Josephine close to the screen during our conversations that often last well over an hour. She stares at me intently as if she is memorizing my voice and face. She seems to get excited when she first sees me and her eyes widen as if she is saying, ‘What’s up Great Grandma?’ I swear that after a couple of months engaging this way, that she recognizes my voice and my face. And that she feels the love I am sending, even if I cannot reach through the screen to stroke her.”
I was reminded of the research on fetal development showing that beginning in the second trimester of pregnancy, a baby can detect sounds from outside of the mother’s body. The voices, music and noises she hears in utero, help her prepare for the environment she’ll enter at birth.
Bubby JuJube communicates daily via Facetime with two-year old Bea, who focusses intently on her grandmother’s voice and image. Their chats last 30 to 45 minutes and almost always include
reading a favourite book together. Bea picks up on visual and voice cues. When they read something silly, Bea lights up with smiles and giggles. Sometimes she wants a real visit to her grandmother’s apartment, so Bubby carries her iPad from room to room, stopping to chat with Bea about her favourite paintings on the wall, family photographs and sculptures
on a side table.
“The grandparent-grandchild connection is special” says Bubby. “My role is to listen, love with attention, accept without reservation and to adore my granddaughter. And that is VERY easy to do. Bea picks up on this. She basks in the sunshine of attention and love that is only for her.”
Mary Jane and Bubby’s stories give me hope and encouragement, and motivation to connect virtually with Owen, until the time I can hold him in my arms. In fact, I think I’ll make it an almost daily activity, if his parents can manage it. At the same time, Mary Jane, Bubby and I all agree that watching a grandchild grow online is a bittersweet joy. And that the old-fashioned ways of connecting are equally as important. So, Owen, I have written the following letter to you. It will be the first snail mail communication you will receive.
I am sorry that you had to be born in this frightening and dangerous time. And that my generation did not do more to provide you and your generation with the safe, clean, sustainable, peaceful environment that you deserve.
I am sorry that your first sight of your parents will be compromised because they need to wear masks. And that I am not able to physically hug you and hold you, at least for another few months. Please be sure that we love and adore you despite these constraints.
Your parents have named you well. Owen comes from the Welsh and Irish Celtic tradition and means “young warrior” and “well born” . Being a young warrior does not mean that you will grow up to be a fighter or join the military. But that you will grow with a strong character demonstrating strength, courage, resilience and an exceptional ability to conquer difficult situations in life. Like being born in the midst of a pandemic.
My grandparents survived the Spanish flu, which killed some 50 million people worldwide. At age 72, I have witnessed humanity, global cooperation and public health science defeat a number of infectious diseases, including polio, smallpox, diphtheria, SARS and MERS. Thanks to the anti-vaxers, war and the lack of clean water in some areas of the world, we are still working on measles, mumps, tetanus, river blindness and guinea worm.
COVID-19 is bad, very, bad. But we will get through it.
Hopefully, we will come out the other side with a changed world order. That your journey on earth will be filled with green forms of power, transportation and construction. With economics and social security systems that guarantee education and a basic income for all, and values and pays essential workers what they deserve. With politics that foster equity and nondiscrimination and that put the health of people and
our environment first.
But two things will never change — the special relationship we have as grandma and grandchild, and the unconditional love I feel for you. Dare I say it
— LOVE trumps all!
Welcome to our world darling Owen.
Owen was born healthy and adorable on Monday, June 8. Gramma Peggy met Owen via FaceTime five hours after his birth.
What are you finding are the challenges of grandparenting during a pandemic and how are you handling these challenges? Write to Peggy at firstname.lastname@example.org.We’d love to hear from you and share your wisdom.
Peggy Edwards and Mary Jane Sterne are best friends and the authors of Intentional Grandparenting: A Boomer’s Guide (McClelland and Stewart, 2005). Available from amazon.ca and Chapters.Indigo.ca. The authors live in Ottawa and have 23 grandchildren and six great- grandchildren between them.