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The pain of being a long distance granny
« on: February 24, 2014, 11:10:12 am »

The pain of being a long distance granny: As thousands of young families emigrate each year, the women missing out on the most precious relationship of all

    Growing number of ‘virtual’ grandparents whose family have emigrated
    Their only contact with their grandchildren is through Skype and FaceTime
    Cherry Payne, 69, speaks to her grandchildren twice a week on Skype
    She used to see them in person every weekend but now only twice a year

By Laura Millar

PUBLISHED: 22:25, 23 February 2014 | UPDATED: 22:25, 23 February 2014

Cherry Payne was thrilled to be invited to her granddaughter Sissi’s fifth birthday party last May. As the little girl tore open the wrapping paper on her presents and played with her new toys and games, she chatted animatedly to her grandma.

When the time came, Sissi even invited Cherry, 69, to take a deep breath and help her blow out the candles on her birthday cake. It was a moment tinged with magic and sadness for both.

Because while the little girl’s celebrations were being held in Dubai, Cherry was watching it all through a computer screen from her living room, 3,000 miles away in Herstmonceux, East Sussex.

Cherry is one of a growing generation  of ‘virtual’ grandparents, whose family have emigrated and whose only contact with their beloved grandchildren, aside from the occasional visit, is through video-calling technology such as Skype and FaceTime.

Indeed, recent research shows there are more than 5.4 million UK nationals living abroad, and 11 per cent of the  British population is now born overseas. The consequence of this exodus is the scattering of children and grandchildren around the world — and the stretching of heartstrings to breaking point.

‘Missing Christmases and birthdays is especially sad,’ says Cherry, a retired tour driver for holiday companies, who is married to John, 78, also a tour driver before he retired.

‘They moved for a good reason — my daughter Karen, their mum, had been struggling to find work in the UK, so when she was offered a fantastic job as editor of a glossy magazine over there two years ago, it made sense.

‘The weather’s fantastic and they have a great quality of life. But it doesn’t make it any easier. When I waved them all off to the airport, my heart broke.’

Today, Cherry speaks to Sissi and her brother Deme, 11, a couple of times a week on Skype, and tries to see them around twice a year, when she and John can afford a cheap flight.

They’ve gone from seeing their grandchildren most weekends, taking them for walks on the beach and on bike and horse rides, to finding out about the latest milestone in their lives online.

Leaving Deme and Sissi after her most recent visit last September, Cherry was inconsolable. ‘I cried the entire way home,’ she says. ‘The people on the plane must have thought there was something wrong with me, but not knowing when I’d see them next just tore me apart.

‘I kept thinking about the way they looked and smelled, and how it felt to cuddle them.’

And it’s just as hard on her grandchildren. ‘Nearly three years on, Sissi still asks me every day: “When are we going to see Annie?” — the name she’s always had for her grandmother,’ says Karen, 47.

‘When Mum came out last September, Deme, who insists on being “cool” all the time, rushed up to hug her and even looked a little teary.’

It’s too soon to say whether the family will settle in Dubai for ever, but they have no plans to return to Britain in the near future.

Angela Kelly, a 66-year-old media consultant from Bolton, is even further from her four beloved grandchildren: twins Jessica and Finley, ten, Riley, five, and Zach, three. Her eldest daughter Charlotte, 34, an office administrator, met her New Zealander husband, Craig, 43, when he worked as a policeman in the UK.

‘When Charlotte and Craig first got together, I didn’t think they’d move to his homeland, as he’d been in the UK for a few years before they met, and they lived in London for several years after that,’ recalls Angela.

‘When they broke the news to me 11 years ago that they were going back to Craig’s hometown of Waiuku, near Auckland, to see what the work prospects were like, I couldn’t get my head around the idea. But they have such a fantastic lifestyle, I can’t say I blame them.

‘My husband Rob and I were lucky enough to be out there for the births of Riley and Zach, which has strengthened our bond with them.

‘But, since we only see them all once a year, I have missed out on some of their most significant moments, like their first days of school, and so many birthdays.’

Angela and Rob, 64, a property developer, fly out to see their family once a year, but at around £900 each for a return flight, it can be prohibitively expensive.

Although they are fit and healthy, they admit the journey is tiring, and they can’t bear to think about a time when they might not be able to cope with it.

‘The flight — 12 hours to Singapore then another flight of 11 hours — is wearing,’ she says. ‘It takes about a week to get over the jetlag, but we accept this is the price we have to pay to see our family.

We never go for less than three weeks at a time, so we can spend some real quality time with them.
‘When we are there in person, we are proper hands-on grandparents,’ says Angela. ‘Rob is the “Granddad Taxi”, giving them lifts wherever they want to go and I’ll make scones with Riley. Zach likes going with me to the supermarket.

‘The best things are just those ordinary moments that other grandparents take for granted — chatting to them about their day and how school’s been.

‘I’m always fighting back the tears when it’s time to leave. I try not to show it to the kids. When my two older grandchildren were toddlers, they thought I was the little old lady who lived at the airport and was always crying. It’s still as painful today, so now I insist they don’t come to see us off.’

When she can’t be with them, Angela sends them little gifts, such as T-shirts and hairclips.

‘It’s nice to know they’ve always got a bit of us with them, and it gives them a bit of glamour at school, being able to tell their friends that their granny and granddad sent something all the way from England.’

She’s delighted that Jess has also started to use email. ‘She’ll tell me little things about her day, like what she did at school, and asks me what I’m up to. I treasure that line of communication.’

Dr Amanda Gummer, a child development expert, says the  grandmother-grandchild bond is  ‘incredibly powerful’.

‘Growing up with a sense of self and belonging is invaluable to a child’s emotional wellbeing, and grandparents can provide a lot of history about the family, which helps to develop their sense of belonging,’ she says.

Angela admits she envies the fact that Craig’s mother, Caroline, has more opportunities to develop such a bond with her grandchildren.

‘She lives quite close and the children stay for weekends,’ says Angela. ‘I do feel pangs of jealousy; it’s only natural. But Caroline is sensitive to our situation, and when Rob and I are over, she’ll back off and give us space.’

Relationship expert Gladeana McMahon says Angela and Cherry are experiencing the downside of living in an increasingly global society. ‘With young people travelling more than ever, they are more likely to work or settle down abroad,’ she says. Ironically, it’s often the broad-minded grandparents who plant the seed for adventure in their child’s head.

Ruth Rosenthal, 62, a retired optometrist, believes that’s why three of her grandchildren are now living abroad in Israel, 2,350 miles from the home she shares with second husband Gordon, 63, in Manchester.

‘My ex-husband and I moved to Israel with our three children for six years when they were young,’ says Ruth.

‘We wanted to go for the sunshine and to try a different way of life for a while. While we were there, my eldest son Adam, who was 13 at the time, fell in love with the country.’

Adam, now 35, works for a stone and marble company, and moved to a little village near Tel Aviv three years ago with his wife, Emma, 33, a full-time mum, when their first child, Sara, now four years old, was one — a move partly influenced by Emma’s parents having retired there the year before.

They have since had Eve, 15 months, and Hadas, six weeks.

‘When Adam broke the news  six months before they left, I was devastated,’ Ruth says.

‘It took me about a year to come to terms with it, but I had no choice. It was their decision and I had to respect that. I would never have dreamed of trying to persuade them not to go. It could have been worse — they could have moved to Australia. I go over as often as I can, around three times a year.

‘When I’m visiting, Sara gives  me crayon pictures she’s drawn especially for me, which I keep on my fridge back home,’ she says. ‘Eve gives the best cuddles. She’ll spend  ages on my lap with her arms wrapped around me. Even if I get pins and needles, I won’t move!’

Like Angela, Ruth admits she is anxious that the children will be closer to the other side of the family. ‘I worry that the children might become more attached to their grandmother in Israel, and whether they’ll remember me when I visit.

‘I wear the same silver necklace when I see them, which they always try to grab hold of, so I’m hoping they associate it with me.

‘I bought an iPhone because of its FaceTime feature, so I can video-call the children and see how they are changing,’ says Ruth. ‘But it’s never the same as being with them. You can’t hug or kiss them through a phone or computer.’

Ruth has five other grandchildren in the UK. ‘I’m lucky I have so much to keep me busy here, but my coping mechanism is to look ahead to the next time I’ll see the little ones in Israel,’ she says.

While the heartache of being separated from their families makes life bittersweet for ‘virtual’ grandparents, there are rewards.

‘Living in a different country makes you more exciting — you’re a bit exotic and special,’ says Gladeana McMahon. ‘Because you’ll be likely to visit for a longer time, you can really maximise the experiences you have together.’

As Angela says: ‘The best moments are when they put their little hands in yours and hold on like they’ll never let go. It makes the wait so worth it.’