Helen Elliott was apprehensive before she became a grandmother, and worried about reliving the repetitive monotony of mothering little babies.
“I was a very interested and loving mother … [but] I didn’t enjoy being a mother. I thought my life had ended, really,” she tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.
She loved her children desperately, but “used to wake up in the morning with dread and think, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got to spend the entire day finding things for them to do'”.
“So I didn’t want it all to happen all over again, because I knew that I would be needed for help and backup,” she says.
But to her great surprise, the literary critic loves being a grandmother — even signing her texts to her grandchildren with “The Doter”.
“One of the great pleasures of being a grandmother is the lack of responsibility,” she says.
“We all felt so terribly responsible [as mothers]. We had the most precious things we ever had, and what if we get it wrong? And now someone else can get it wrong.”
Helen is now the editor of a new anthology of essays on 21st century grandmotherhood, many of which explore how the role has changed over the last couple of generations.
Grandmothers have moved from being looked after by the rest of the family to being a central contributor, through child care and financial and emotional support.
And that role has changed again during the coronavirus pandemic; now grandparents are having to find creative ways to engage with their grandchildren.
This is what that looks like in different families.
Creating joy in isolation
Monica Kelly lives on the Gold Coast and has eight grandchildren, spread across Brisbane, Sydney and Somers in Victoria.
Her daughter set up a daily Zoom storytelling session, which quickly descends into silliness and pulling faces.
Merrilyn Velcek is also telling stories to her two grandchildren from her home in Melbourne. She and her husband are creating a series of books for them, while they keep their distance.
“I’m deliberately keeping the books simple and home-made to encourage the children in their own attempts,” she says.
“It is about the moment of capturing interest, not presenting a commercial-looking product.”
Her grandchildren instruct her on a topic or direction for the next instalment and they pass the book back and forth.
“My husband and I get as much joy from the little books as the children,” Merrilyn says.
Carolyn John, a retired teacher based in northern NSW, has also put her creative skills to good use for her grandchildren’s benefit.
The practicing artist donated an old table and set of chairs to two of her grandchildren to use while they do their schoolwork from home.
She handcrafted fabric hanging storage for each of the children to place on the back of their chair to hold books, pens and paper.
The project had more than one upside — it kept her busy and ended up as a practical gift with sentimental value for the children.
Mary Beech lives in Melbourne, around the corner from her granddaughter Raffaella.
The retired music teacher usually cares for Raffaella three days a week.
“Music is what kept me and my children connected, and it’s the same with Raffi. When I had her, we’d spend a large portion of our day just singing and being creative,” Mary says.
Now, they spend time every morning together via a screen.
“She informs me what she’d like to sing, because she’s just started to string sentences together,” she says.
Separation for the greater good
Yvette Holt is lecturing at a Melbourne university, separated from the four grandchildren she usually lives with in Alice Springs.
For the anthology, the writer, poet, academic and editor reflected on the extremely close bond she shares with her daughter’s children.
It’s the morning routine she’s missing most — “getting up early, inquiring little footsteps behind you” while the kettle boils.
Yvette is descended from the Yiman, Bidjara and Wakaman nations of Queensland, and says the first thing she and the grandchildren will do when they’re back together is walk along the often-empty tracks near their home.
“It’s not our country and I’m always reminding the family that we’re a guest to this part of the world,” she explains.
Storytelling along the track is a favourite activity, incorporating family lore and plenty of imagination.
“We’re part of the bird family,” Yvette says, recalling one of the stories her grandchildren like best. “We should find a way that we’re able to get our wings together for a flight over to see my parents in Brisbane and then come back before their mother knows we’re gone.”
Yvette is staying in touch mainly over the phone — her grandchildren have their own screens but technology gets in the way.
“I connected their iPads … to my account, didn’t I? So it’s impossible to call yourself,” she says.
So they make do with “lots of giggling on the phone”.
More, not less
Celestine Hitiura Vaite is Ma’u to three boys.
In an essay for Grandmothers, the Tahitian grandma wrote about her yearning for grandchildren before they became a reality.
Celestine is actually seeing more, not less of her grandchildren since the social distancing rules started.
“We live around the corner … before it was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday but now it’s probably almost every day,” she says.
She says her own health risks from coronavirus are less of a concern to her because she gains so much from spending time with her grandchildren.
“Because of the coronavirus, they don’t get to see other friends. They are locked down, so they only get to see me.”
In Tahitian culture, close and regular contact with extended family is the norm, and it’s something Celestine relishes.
“It gives me happiness in my heart … when I walk to my grandchildren, I know it’s going to be a great day.”