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Why Modern Day Grandparenting Is So Hard

Grandparents must continually strike a balance between their needs and those of the families they helped create. This is never easy.

You say good-bye and I say hello

Hello, hello.

I don't know why you say good-bye

I say hello.

—The Beatles

My son has just sent me a video shot moments before on his BlackBerry. He's poised on the banks of the Seine, and in the distance the sun is beaming off the fabled rooftops like flares. The action stops, and then starts up again near the Eiffel Tower, where my 2-year-old granddaughter howls with glee as she runs away from my son. Every so often, she stops and turns around to make sure that her father is still there. Thrilled as I am to see Clay and Isabelle, awed as I am by the technology that transports them in a flash from Paris to my computer screen in Washington, D.C., the sight of them fills me with more yearning than joy. They seem so close—and yet really they're so far away. Instead of bridging the miles and time zones that separate us, the immediacy of our communicating does the opposite and underscores the distance.

Here, but not here!

I feel the same way when I "visit" with them on Skype in "real time." Even as I delight in watching Isabelle take a bubble bath or dig into a croissant (the good kind), I'm painfully aware that we're on opposite sides of a vast ocean. I'm left feeling unsatisfied, as if I've been invited out to a fine restaurant and then made to leave just as the main course arrives. My longing to be with Clay, his wife, Tamar, and Isabelle—see them, touch them, laugh with them in real real time—only grows stronger. I'd love to join them for an impromptu dinner or a lazy walk by the river, instead of the scheduled visits that always feel like state occasions, in which we must be on our best behavior because we know that months will pass before we meet up again in the same dimension. Isabelle seems frustrated, too: yesterday, she tried to pin her Dora the Explorer barrettes in my hair through the computer screen.

Maybe I feel the distance so acutely because my history with my son is pockmarked with more hellos and good-byes than in most families. Soon after he turned 2, his father and I divorced. Ironically, though the divorce agreement bears the official stamp of a court of law, the marriage itself was a common-law affair. We didn't believe in stifling social contracts back in 1971, the year Clay was born. They were the work of the man, the pigs, the whole hateful military-industrial complex, and, worst of all, our parents. We were writing our own rules—by which we meant no rules. We were freaks. That was our calling, as well the nicest thing you could say about anybody. My unhusband and I vowed to renew our love every day, freely, joyfully—until one day the love ran out.

The prevailing wisdom then, especially in northern California, where we lived, was that shared physical custody was in the child's best interest. Back and forth between Mom's house and Dad's house, a few days here, a week there, a new generation of portable children, led by their parents, was redefining the meaning of home. So even though I'd been granted full legal and physical custody by the judge, even though my son's father was a deadbeat when it came to child support, even though I worried that living in two dissimilar households would make my son feel as if he were on a permanent camping trip, I went along. By his fourth birthday, he was spending almost a third of the time with his father. When he turned 10, both he and my ex pushed for half-time; reluctantly, I agreed. At first we were on a week-to-week schedule, then every two weeks, and finally, by the time Clay entered high school, he alternated living at his father's house and my house for a month at a time.

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