1. Can I have a say in what they’re called?
Before the birth perhaps but definitely not after. Our whole family has spent ages listening to names being thrown around, screaming with laughter at the most outrageous ones, suggesting something more outrageous, and shouting down the ones we didn’t like. Then, as the birth approached, I noticed that my sons and partners had gone quiet on the name front.
It clearly wasn’t a joke any more. You just hope they’re not going to be lumbered with names like Leaf or Napoleon. When the babies were born we were told their names quite firmly. In the excitement of the birth nobody thought of questioning these. Whether I liked them or not wasn’t important. That’s who they were.
2. How involved do I get and when do I step away?
I’ve learnt to step in when asked and step away when not. I once made the mistake of asking if I could move a lit candle from the top of a radiator in case my granddaughter knocked it off and was told quite sharply that “she knows not to touch it”.
I’ve seen both my sons’ eyes glaze over when I say “When you were a baby we didn’t do it like that” or “What’s wrong with the bi-fold strollers we had? At least people could get on the bus in those days”. Best not to volunteer opinions unless asked, however helpful you think they are.
3. Must I do what I’m told?
The rules of child-rearing have changed since I was a mum, though the basic principles have lasted over centuries. The amount of equipment needed seems extraordinary and expensive, and some of the rules seem mystifying.
However, I suspect one is not better than another, just different. The first time I noticed this was when my granddaughter was laid down to sleep on her back. On her back! We were taught to swaddle them and lie them on their front. I wanted to help get her into her routine, so learnt the new way: on her back, hand on her chest. It worked a charm.
So regarding important questions like this, yes, we should try to embrace the rules our children do. But regarding treats, perhaps not so much.
4. Can you have favourites?
To have a favourite grandchild is no different from having a favourite child. You don’t! Or at the very least, you do everything you can not to. When my own children were growing up, we’d visit my mother-in-law in the north of England where she lived close to her other grandchildren and saw them all the time.
When we got there, she’d regale us with stories about them and their achievements, appearing to be so much more interested in them than ours. I’m sure this was only because she knew them so much better, but I remember how it hurt at the time.
5. What if our parenting styles are different?
Three major issues are screen time, food and sleep. When my children were growing up we only had one screen – the TV.
Now there’s so much more to contend with. While recognising times have changed, I have to bite my lip when I see my grandchildren glued to an iPad or the TV. Equally, if there’s a strict no-TV rule, I’m tempted to bend it when everyone’s tired and fractious and a book just won’t do.
Similarly, their diet can be a minefield. I have to rein in my “Not baked beans again!” and hold my tongue. A friend’s son ate almost nothing but sausages for years of his childhood and he’s survived.
As for sleep. Once, when my son was putting his daughter in the buggy for another midday sleep, I said tentatively: “If I were you, I’d get her in the habit of going to bed during the day.”
He replied, quite reasonably: “But we’re not you Mum.” Point taken.
6. Please and thank you
Manners – one of the battle grounds of childhood. But they matter. I remember my own father being a stickler for them, both at the table and away from it. We were forced into writing thank-you letters, holding our knife and fork “properly”, sitting up straight, saying “what” not “pardon”.
My grandchildren aren’t quite old enough for those things to matter too much but I’m amused to hear my son prompting a please or a thank you and, despite my struggles with him, he has already got his daughter writing wobbly thank-you letters that are a pleasure to receive. If her table manners turn out to be non-existent, I feel I’m entitled to say they matter to me and she should try to observe them at my table.
7. What if I’ve got something better to do than babysit?
Say so. There’s a reason women don’t have children into their 50s. However enchanting and rewarding my grandchildren are, they are exhausting. Yet, when I’m asked if I can look after them, I can’t refuse. If I’ve got something I have to do instead, I’ll simply explain. But, as one of my daughters-in-law said, “What could be better than looking after him?”
It’s hard to confess that having a glass of wine with a friend might beat it hands down! Perhaps most important is not to let your children take you for granted. If you want to weigh in as a regular nanny, then great, but if not then you must be clear from the start about how much help you can give and when. Provided everyone knows where they stand, there won’t be a problem.
8. Are the other grandparents my friends?
In an ideal world, yes. I’ve been lucky enough to get on with my daughters-in-laws’ parents, so it’s much the better if you can. We’ve spent happy times with them and enjoyed sharing the grandchildren.
Other friends have been less fortunate and watch with horror as the other grandparents shower presents on their grandchild to whom they’ve only given a plastic tea set. The following year, they upped their game to a fancy dolls’ house only to find the others had given a favourite comic. You can’t win!
9. Divorce – what next?
Sadly, this happens all too often and with it may come a change in your role. Sadly, one of my sons is divorced but he and his wife have worked out an amicable arrangement whereby they share their daughter on an equal footing. At first, he asked for help more, and I wanted to help but had to try not to overdo it.
Because of the distress I saw and my own distress, I wanted to help more and did. He moved in with us after they separated so we saw a lot of his daughter, but when the first coronavirus lockdown came in 2020 he moved out and had to cope on his own. Perhaps, for their sake, this was a blessing in disguise, and we kept in touch via WhatsApp – where would we have been without it!
10. What about treats?
Don’t all grannies spoil their grandchildren given half a chance? Aren’t we meant to break the rules? Slipping in a treat when you suspect their parents might disapprove is part and parcel of forging your own relationship with your grandchild.
Previously, I FaceTimed my son who was in a shop where his daughter was having a meltdown over a £4 doll she wanted him to buy. He was being firm and, without thinking, I completely undermined him by saying: “Just get it and say it’s from me. I’ll pay you back.” Afterwards I felt guilty, but when I apologised, he said he was glad I had because it had stopped the tantrum and he’d been able to stick to his principle by saying the doll was from me!
I’m not kidding myself that my relationship with my grandchildren will always be the delight it is now. A few of my friends have older grandchildren, and I can see how the relationship can deteriorate with puberty. I’m looking forward to taking them to the theatre and cinema, but will they even want to come with me?
I’ve asked for tips but those friends’ eyes roll in despair. One friend advised that, however self-absorbed and however firmly they’re welded to their phone and only answering in polite monosyllables, the important thing was to try to make them understand that you’ll always be there for them, and if they can’t talk to their parents about something, they can talk to you – in total confidence.
Getting them to listen might be harder than it sounds. They’re not interested in your ailments or in how much things have changed since you were their age.
But another friend told me she felt she was the natural filter for their angst about their parents, so she can talk about their parent’s teenage self, and all the stuff – naughty/good/in or out of love and trouble – they got up to. This puts things in perspective, sometimes, even if they’re convinced they are the first person to feel things.
Fanny Blake’s novel The Long Way Home (S&S) is available now. Pick up your copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.