‘We grieve’: the anguish of not seeing a new grandchild amid the pandemic

Sirin Kale

“I hate it!” says Jim Clinton jocularly of the lockdown. “I hate not being able to see the grandchildren … not being able to see a newborn baby is one of those things as a grandparent you don’t really contemplate happening. You can’t imagine you won’t be there to experience those early days up close and personal.”

Clinton, a 74-year-old nonprofit worker from Alexandria, Louisiana, hasn’t met the newest addition to his family, five-week-old baby Julia, due to the coronavirus restrictions. His son Ryan and daughter-in-law Sarah had baby Julia on 23 April. Julia is their third child, and under normal circumstances Clinton and his wife Susan would have visited as soon as possible after the birth.

But that wasn’t going to be possible: the family lives in Austin, Texas, and it wouldn’t be responsible to visit, even if only to see the baby from a distance. “The process of getting to Julia, being exposed to the gas stations and convenience stores … it just wasn’t possible,” says Clinton. “We agonize over it, we grieve over it, but at the end of the day, we know it’s the right thing to do.”

Clinton is one of the many grandparents across the world missing out on those precious early months of their grandchildren’s lives. This is a challenging time for them: they are grateful that their grandchildren have arrived safe and healthy in the face of a frightening virus – doctors are not yet sure of Covid-19’s effect in pregnancy – and yet that relief is tempered with sadness at the knowledge that they may not see these babies for months, or possibly more if a vaccine is not found.

“We have to keep it in perspective,” says Liz Griffiths, 63, a retiree from Surrey, UK. Her first grandchild, Max, was born on 29 March to Griffiths’ daughter, Bekki. “He’s safe, we’re safe, Bekki is safe, and this hopefully won’t last forever.” But of course, missing the birth of your first grandchild is a challenging experience. Griffiths and her husband had cleared their schedule so that they could visit after Max’s birth and help with childcare. After Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown on 23 March, they realised that would be impossible.

There is the emotional side of the coronavirus lockdown: the anguished realisation that you won’t be there for your grandchildren’s first weeks in the world. But there are also practical considerations. In those early months, grandparents often look after older children, help keep the house tidy and prepare meals, and watch the baby whie the parents sleep. Without that support, new parents can feel overwhelmed.

“It’s been so stressful,” sighs 31-year-old stay-at-home mom Katelyn Cousins from St Petersburg, Florida. Katelyn gave birth to her second child with her husband Will three weeks ago. In addition to baby Meadow, Katelyn has an 18-month old daughter, Margot. When we speak, Katelyn sounds tired – I can hear the baby crying in the background. “I’m about an eight out of 10 for exhaustion right now,” she admits.

The difference between Meadow and Margot’s births feels stark. When Margot was born, Will’s parents stayed with them for two weeks, before Katelyn’s mom took over. During those weeks, the grandparents helped with childcare and gave them parenting tips. “They showed us different methods for calming the baby when it’s crying, how to ease gas, that kind of thing,” she says. “I definitely look up to my mom and her parenting style, so it was nice to have that comfort there, and my husband doesn’t always know the right thing to do when both of them are crying.”

Now, with Will working from home due to the coronavirus restrictions, the burden of almost all the childcare falls on Katelyn. “My husband is a hard sleeper, so night duty is basically me,” she says. “He’s super-helpful when he can be, but with him having to work, it’s hard. I definitely feel like I’m in zombie mode all the time.”

When you’re sacrificing the ability to see your grandchildren to obey the rules, watching others flout lockdown rules can be hugely chagrinning. “I get very annoyed,” says Paul Hawkins, 64, a retiree from Warwickshire. “I haven’t seen my grandchild yet, and you see other people living nearby whose grandchildren are coming around every day.” Hawkins’ son Neil and his wife, Ellen, gave birth to their second child, son Chester, on 17 April. Even when the lockdown restrictions are eased, Hawkins probably won’t meet Chester for a while – his mother-in-law Peggy lives with him, and as she’s 97, she’s extremely vulnerable to coronavirus.

Griffiths is the only grandparent to have caught a glimpse of the baby: tragically, her mother-in-law Dorothy died the week after baby Max was born. At the small, socially distanced funeral, Griffiths saw baby Max from a distance, in the car park. “We stayed a safe distance away,” she says. “It’s bizarre, meeting your grandson at a funeral. It was very difficult.” One small blessing – Griffiths was able to show Dorothy pictures of Max before she died. “She was in frail health by then, but she smiled,” Griffiths remembers. “We think she did understand who he was.”

All the grandparents I speak with have been keeping in touch through FaceTime and Zoom. It’s nice, but no substitute for being able to hold the newborns or sing them to sleep. Griffiths has attended online baby classes on Zoom, for parents and grandparents.

“We’ve seen him a lot on screen,” Hawkins says of baby Chester, “but it’s not the same as holding him or being there, I suppose.” Watching a baby’s first weeks on Earth digitally can be jarring: you notice their growth more acutely than you would in real life. “In such a short time,” Hawkins says, “you really see how he’s grown and changed. It’s sad to know you’ve missed that first month.”

Clinton relishes the photos and videos Ryan and Sarah send him of baby Julia. “We are taking advantage of the technology, which makes things so much better than they would have been if we were living through the 1918 flu pandemic, and relying on letters for news,” he says. Ryan sent pictures of baby Julia from the delivery room, shortly after she was born. “I was in my office and got the text and ran to the other part of the house to show Susan,” Clinton remembers. “We hugged.”

Watching Julia grow up online is a bittersweet joy. “Each new set of pictures is great on one level, but on another level it underscores the distance and makes you want to get on a highway, throw the rules out, behave how you’d never behave, and just go.” He sighs.

“But then your better angels prevail, and you do the right thing.”