Notes From Abroad: Staying Sane When The Grandparents Visit

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At the worst of times – by which I mean their worst times – my friends back home envy my faraway life: free from parental pop-ins, sibling drama and umpteen obligations that multiply as we (gulp) get older.

Ah, but envy me not, I say, when my parents and I whip out our calendars and begin planning their annual visit, a time when all the stresses of a year’s worth of the above are condensed into two tight weeks in all-too-tight quarters.

“Good luck,” my husband chimed last Christmas while mentally checking out. It’s a skill neither of us thought we’d require moving half way around the world. But one more thing having a couple of kids will teach you: not even relocating to China – as I recently did – will keep the grandparents away.

Nothing could prepare me for the inaugural parental visit after my first daughter was born – not for the pile of reading my mom brought to catch up on, nor for my dad’s inability to source a spoon for his tea in my minute kitchen, nor for being asked to book weekend flights and hotels for them while holding an apoplectic child in one arm and pumping a breast with the other. I can’t say they were 100 percent hands-off, but I believe their epic “calmness” in the face of our relative uncalm was a talent of which they became rather proud. Better that than my – ahem – overbearing inlaws, they would say. And anyway, they’d already played house when I was a child, and we all know that wasn’t pretty.

During that first post-natal visit I was too busy honing my mothering skills to worry much about my flagging daughtering ones. But once I started paying attention I realized there were methods out there to stave off the madness. I recently met with Ai-Ching Liu, for instance, an author, broadcaster and family counselor who helps expats cope with their visiting parents – not only my kind, but the kind who stay for months, or overcompensate for past parenting transgressions. Or both.

Liu urges new parents to create for their parents a place of their own, whether it’s in a corner of the basement, a suite or an entire outbuilding (one can dream).

“The more room they have to themselves the better,” she says. “If possible, put a TV in there. Make their room more than just for sleeping, with tea supplies, a phone and a computer – don’t ask grandparents to share your computer, or they’ll feel like their interfering by using it.”

Do expect them to be exhausted, says Liu. They’re old, they may be experiencing jetlag, they’re not used to being around children every waking hour.

And do treat them like the family that they are. Whether or not your parents are there to help, they should be treated with respect – not like the children you wish you’d never had.

It wasn’t easy for us in our three-room apartment, so we were lucky when we faced another transfer and the opportunity to upsize. The next time, when my parents retreated to their quarters, everyone was happy – and sometimes the kids followed them there. Bliss.

Inevitably, when young parents get around to discussing family visits – as they often do in fits of pique – the elders are charged with the crime of being utterly clueless. How can they not know how irritating they are?

Well, they do. At least some of them. Peter Gosling, whose daughter Jo Parfitt moved to Holland more than two decades ago, wrote a book instructing his generation in the art of being a much beloved fifth wheel. How to Be a Global Grandparent, co-authored by longtime expat Anne Huscroft, is available on Amazon.

“It takes hard work to strengthen the family ties when your loved ones are at a distance,” Gosling told me. No kidding. In our family, “quality time” has had the exact opposite effect, making us feel even more than half a world apart.

Professionally self-aware, Gosling is most careful about being a physical burden, so, he says, “We always make sure that we can travel on our own on the local transport and try not to get underfoot.”

He advises his readers to “help with the washing up, do some shopping and take the family out to the odd meal… take nothing for granted.”

Gosling says he’s privy to a shedload of family horror stories, including one where the visiting grandparents dominated all conversations – in their own obscure dialect, unfamiliar to their daughter-in-law.

Like any minefield, it can take years to diffuse all the trouble spots. “Learning to take the right line takes time,” says Gosling.

“We’ve been doing it for 20 years and are still learning the ropes!”