Long-distance grandparenting is not easy. Here’s how these families make it work.
[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s 2019 family issue. Click here to find our other stories on faith and today’s families.]
“You’re going to love it!” Those were the words of a colleague when I told him I was about to become a grandfather. He told me how he uses his iPad to FaceTime his 4-year-old granddaughter in Florida every weekend from his New Jersey home. But there was more: “Sometimes after bedtime, she sneaks her iPad out and calls me,” he said mischievously. “Eventually I hear her mother calling up the stairs, and my granddaughter whispers, ‘Grandpa, I gotta go! Mom’s coming!’”
A year and a half later, I am able to see my own granddaughter in California through FaceTime calls, and it is a delight. But it is also complicated. I live in Ohio, and it does not feel good being far from her—FaceTime is not a cure-all. At a time when American families are increasingly mobile, many grandparents face a similar challenge. According to an AARP survey, 52 percent of American families are dealing with distances of more than 200 miles between grandparents and at least one grandchild. A third of grandparents live more than 50 miles from their closest grandchild.
I could not help but wonder how other families handle these physical distances across three generations: empty-nester older parents, younger parents and their children. As I spoke with Catholic families around the country, I naïvely hoped for a neat solution but found there is no single answer that fits every family. Each finds its own way to maintain connections, build relationships and meet the challenges of sharing their Catholic faith from afar.
In Pittsburgh, Lauren Burdette, now in her late 30s, made space in her house for long visits from her mother, Lou Ann Horstman. Ms. Horstman, who is in her early 60s and retired, raised a family with her husband, Norm, in Springfield, Ohio, where they live today. It is about a four-hour drive from Springfield to Pittsburgh. Grandpa (“Dee-Da”) Norm, a deacon, works full time as a pastoral associate at St. Raphael parish in Springfield. The Pittsburgh grandchildren have come for long visits to Springfield, too, though that may be limited to summers as they grow and school schedules restrict travel dates.
“They really work hard to be present,” Ms. Burdette says of her parents. “They came out to help me for the first few weeks after each of my children were born. They would come out for long weekends or try to come out for two or three days at a time. I would so look forward to those times.” Some of her friends have nearby parents who visit weekly or even daily, but Lauren came to prefer her arrangement: “There was something very sweet about those longer visits. I found myself really, really looking forward to them.”
Ms. Horstman’s perspective is shaped by her own experience as a cancer survivor. “It’s like, I might not be here. How can I leave remnants of myself so they can’t get completely away from me?” So she has made herself both welcoming and available. Until this year, Ms. Burdette had been homeschooling, which made things easier. “They have been able to come for a week at a time,” says Ms. Horstman. “So over the last couple of years, we’ve tried to get together maybe once every six weeks. Either Lauren and the kids would come to us for a week, or I would go to Pittsburgh for a week.”
For many grandparents, a desire to pass on a strong sense of cultural identity is profound.
In the summers, the children attend Scripture Safari, a vacation Bible school that Mr. Horstman runs at St. Raphael’s. Passing along faith is very important in this family, so it came as no surprise to the family that Ms. Burdette has become a spiritual director and author of The Life That is Ours: Motherhood as Spiritual Practice. Perhaps less predictably, she married into a devout Presbyterian family and worships in a Presbyterian church. “It’s a complex situation,” Ms. Horstman says. “Lauren still considers herself Catholic. If they’re in Springfield they come with us, and if they’re there, of course, they’re at the Presbyterian church.”
Ms. Horstman mails catechetical materials from her parish to her grandchildren—St. Raphael’s subscribes to a monthly handout for religious education students. Her grandchildren are registered members of the parish religious education program, and Ms. Horstman pays for and sends them the material. “I would never do this without permission from Lauren and her husband, Nick,” she adds. The bottom line for Ms. Horstman: “I want them to have a connection to God. I want them to know that they are loved. I want them to recognize their responsibility to be loving, inclusive beings in the world.”
A Cultural Legacy
For many grandparents, a desire to pass on a strong sense of cultural identity is profound. Andrew and Terri Lyke of Chicago are among them. Mr. Lyke is a nephew of the late archbishop of Atlanta, James Lyke. A former telephone company worker, he was recruited to serve the Archdiocese of Chicago as coordinator of marriage ministries, then later was recruited again as the director of the Office of Black Catholics. Now, in retirement, he and Ms. Lyke, a retired hospital technician, have founded the Arusi Network, through which they coach young married couples and offer marriage retreats.
They also spend a good bit of time with family, including traveling downstate to be with their son’s family. (Their daughter and her children live in Chicago.) Both Mr. and Ms. Lyke grew up in segregated Chicago, where African-American families were redlined into certain sections of the city, a racist practice that had the side effect of keeping families physically close to one another. “Everyone knew everybody because you could not go anywhere else!” recalls Ms. Lyke.
It is the lived example of grandparents that has the greatest influence.
The Lykes now work deliberately to build close family ties, in terms of both emotional connection and physical location. The couple is making plans to buy the house next door to their son. “And it’s not just for us; it’s for our extended family,” Mr. Lyke says. It will serve as a sort of guest house for family—cousins, aunts, uncles—to come for visits and “not be a burden on our son,” says Ms. Lyke.
“The goal was to really have family close together,” explains Mr. Lyke. “That’s our value. We can’t dictate it to our kids, but it’s something that we hope for. We want them to be close. That’s important to us. And we want their kids to be close.” The cousins are already a tightknit group and thrilled when they get together, says Mr. Lyke. He hopes to build on that.
The Lykes hope that this closeness will help to facilitate an understanding of their grandchildren’s cultural heritage and conversations about it. Their son is in a biracial marriage, and his town has a small black community. The Lykes, therefore, plan to bring the black community to them. “I’m looking at their cultural experience,” says Mr. Lyke. “That’s why it’s so important for us to be connected that way. We teach them the cultural things, you know?” For example, Ms. Lyke says, laughing, she helps their white daughter-in-law care for their granddaughters' long, curly hair.
Their grandchildren downstate are not being raised Catholic, but he Lykes maintain a deep commitment. “We’re not going to let that bother us,” says Ms. Lyke. “We’re not imposing on them.” Focus on the positive, advises Mr. Lyke: “Sometimes we get caught up focusing on what we’re not or what we are missing. It’s much more that we would celebrate what we have.”
It is the lived example of grandparents that has the greatest influence, says Thomas Groome, a theologian and religious educator at Boston College and author of Will There Be Faith?, which proposes ways for families and educators to teach Christian belief and values. Grandparents, he says, play a key role, regardless of how close they live.
Grandparents play a key role in the lives of their grandchildren, regardless of how close they live.
“How grandparents best can help to shape the life of the faith life of their grandchildren is by the practices and the traditions that they have, not by instructing the children,” he says. He fondly recalls his own grandmother, who would be sure that he had a key role in a Christmas ritual. “I was the youngest of nine children. I very seldom got much attention. But at Christmastime, I was in charge of lighting the candle,” he says, still a bit proud. There were venerated traditions in his Irish culture that his grandmother stuck to, like sharing stew with neighbors during the holidays “as a symbol of welcoming the Christ child.” Mr. Groome says his grandmother never talked to him about Jesus or the church, but rather showed him through her actions what they meant.
For some families, distance can help draw clearer lines around family roles and expectations, which is important, Mr. Groome says, because they can differ greatly. Young parents may be grateful just to have found the time to squeeze in a visit, while grandparents may expect to use the time to fit in the life lessons they cannot otherwise offer in person.
Patrick Reynolds-Berry, a family counselor with Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio and a young father, says that grandparents need to tune in to their grandchildren’s developmental stages, especially with young children and toddlers. “How we communicate with children isn’t so often done with words but also with actions, with signs of affection and hugs, with hand-holding and snuggling,” he says. Long-distance grandparents often cannot jump into a visit as if the child knows them as well as the people they see more often, which can be difficult. “I could see grandparents trying to do that with the child when the child doesn’t have a strong attachment or relationship with the grandparents because of distance and time apart,” he says. The grandparents want to be fun, loving, playful, he says, but the child is not ready, emotionally or developmentally. He counsels moving slowly: “Be patient with yourself and especially patient with the child, to kind of meet them where they’re at.”
Brian Vogt, of Washington, D.C., suggests that families make time for special visits outside of holiday time for grandkids and grandparents to interact. His children spend a week each summer (“Grandparents’ Camp”) with his folks in Covington, Ky. His daughter took a long trip with them this past summer to a destination she chose.
Flexibility and sensitivity regarding the roles and identities among the generations can go a long way toward preventing potential conflicts during visits.
Mr. Vogt’s mother, Susan Vogt, says that while she is sometimes envious of the grandparents down the street, who see their local grandkids constantly, she does not envy the caretaking role they have assumed. Ms. Vogt and her husband, Jim, are still very active outside of home. Both were family educators and justice advocates in various organizations over the years.
When Ms. Vogt is with her grandchildren, she makes the time count. For example, she and her husband used The Grandparents’ Book when their grandchildren were very young. “We would put the kids to bed at night, and we would sit down and say, O.K., we’ll have a little prayer and you can choose one of the questions from the grandparents book to talk about, for example, ‘What was it like when you were young?’ And, of course, that delayed their bedtime, which was fine with them!”
Flexibility and sensitivity regarding the roles and identities among the generations can go a long way toward preventing potential conflicts during visits, experts say. “Young parents always have felt the need to say, ‘This is my job,’” says Lauri Przybysz, the president of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers. She has 21 grandchildren and is the author of the book Catholic and Grandparenting. “I spend a lot of time in my book urging grandparents to find ways to be supportive and to accompany without disrespecting children’s primacy. Everybody will be a lot happier and more effective if everybody understands those rules.
“It’s not very effective to nag or to insist on your own way. You get a lot more effectiveness by showing by example, by showing that you listen.”
A willingness to adapt to changing life circumstances helps, too. John and Jule Ward, now in their mid-70s, moved from Chicago to Portland, Ore., about four years ago. “We were following our granddaughter,” who just turned 10, explains Mr. Ward. When he retired from his law firm in Chicago, they finally had the option to move: “We wanted to retire where we’d be near; we wanted to give some time to our granddaughter.” They are renting a house about a five-minute drive from their daughter. “It makes it pretty convenient,” says Mr. Ward.
But the move took them farther out of the life of a grandson, now 18, who lives across the country in Boston. “When we were in Chicago, it was really easy to get to Boston. We could drive there in a day,” Mr. Ward says. Their daughter, Betsy Herald, settled there after college, when she got a job that became a career. Now 46, Ms. Herald admits it is a harder trek but understands that her niece’s proximity to the Wards in Oregon will result in the sort of grandparent attention that her son, Bryce, received while he was growing up in Boston. Though Ms. Herald admits that even the short flight between Chicago and Boston sometimes felt long. “I definitely think there’s more of a challenge when you live a plane flight away from each other,” she says. “I definitely had envy at some points of my friends whose parents just lived a couple blocks away and they could call them up and say, ‘Hey, can you babysit on Saturday night?’”
"I think that you just have to really make a dedicated effort to set aside time several times a year to visit and make the most of that time."
“But you know, I think that you just have to really make a dedicated effort to set aside time several times a year to visit and make the most of that time when you have [it],” she says. Her son developed a strong bond with his grandparents over the years, with family vacations to Florida beach houses rented by the Wards during the summer, as well as some solo time with his grandparents to allow Ms. Herald and her husband to spend time together.
The Wards have been active for decades in the Christian Family Movement, a national movement through which parish-based small groups meet in one another’s homes to nurture their Catholic faith. The ensuing generations have had less enthusiasm for Catholicism, however. “Betsy got married in the church,” says Ms. Ward, “and she had Bryce baptized, and she always has identified as a Catholic. But she doesn’t belong to a parish, and Bryce was not confirmed,” by his own choice. The Wards’ grandson’s family in Oregon has a similar relationship to the church.
“But,” says Mr. Ward, “it’s important to note all they [heard at Mass] and what they watched us do with volunteer work and other public action.” He observes that his daughter shows real concern for her neighbors and “follows the rules: how you’re supposed to act, even though she doesn’t live formally by the structure” of the church. Ms. Ward observes that Ms. Herald lives more charitably than many people who go to church every Sunday. “They picked up the mission of Christ,” she adds. “They are active all the time, helping other people.” Happy with “they way they turned out,” the Wards “don’t want to rock the boat” by heavy-handed insistence on church membership.
Ms. Ward says her faith gives her a unique understanding of “our situation as humans.”
"We should remember that God can still work on those people’s lives, even if they’re approaching God differently."
“I feel sad that my children and maybe my grandchildren aren’t going to have that,” she adds. “But I don’t see any other way to work it except to keep letting them know how much it means to me.”
Mr. Groome says it is sometimes easier for long-distance grandparents to be more assertive on their home turf. “When one of the kids comes to visit, I think the grandparents have to say, ‘We go to the Mass on Sunday’ and perhaps, ‘We stop for breakfast at IHOP on the way home.’ I think the grandparents have to be not overly assertive but pretty committed.” He says grandparents can insist on taking their grandchildren to Mass.
Lauri Przybysz of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers would be a little less direct but picks up on that theme of cultural sharing, which may well be the key to long-distance grandparenting. “Our Catholic customs and traditions leave lots of entry points for people to comfortably continue to practice, even if they are not coming to Mass.” Easter or Christmas visits are times when family traditions with religious roots can be celebrated.
“We should remember that God can still work on those people’s lives, even if they’re approaching God differently. We should be glad that people are wanting to approach God,” she says. Her advice: “Know your faith for yourself, so that you continue to grow in wisdom and other virtues. Then you can involve your grandchildren and their parents in attractive Catholic customs that might not be associated with Mass. And you should ask your grandchildren to pray for you. Any time we pray, we’re connecting with God, right? He gets in the door.”
Ms. Przybysz’s daughter, Beth McKenna, of Virginia, a mother of four, ages 10 to 17, sees lots of family, including her parents, at sacramental and other celebrations among cousins. But that leaves less time for the one-one-one visits from grandparents. “I invite them out [from Baltimore] twice a year, but I still see them about once a month.”
You still have to make a plan for there to be a strong relationship, she says. “But I think the biggest impact they have on passing on the faith to my kids has been that they formed me. Growing up, living the liturgical year and seeing the family as the church or the home was just the way my parents lived, and they still live that way. So when we get together with them, whether that’s for an overtly religious event or just home tradition, I feel like all of my kids experience the ritual of the church, of my extended family, when we gather.”
[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s 2019 family issue. Click here to find our other stories on faith and today’s families.]
Correction, Aug. 26, 2019: This article previously stated that none of the Lyke's grandchildren are Catholic. In fact, their local grandchildren are Catholic and their long-distance grandchildren are not. It also inaccurately described Mrs. Lyke's involvement with her grandchildren's hair. She helps with her granddaughters' hair, not her grandson's.