Seated in a wheelchair, 61-year-old Madhavi Nair* smiles as her six-year-old granddaughter Sukanya bounces around their three-bedroom apartment in Sharjah. ‘Be careful,’ the sexagenarian cautions gently.
Seated on a beanbag nearby, Sukanya’s mother Meera watches as her daughter quits prancing around and curls up next to her grandmother, begging her to tell her the story behind the Keralite harvest festival Onam, where ‘children design flower carpets and get lots of sweets to eat.’ It’s a story the little girl has heard so many times, but enjoys listening to again and again.
The grade-two student is on her summer break – a break made all the more special because her grandmother is visiting from India.
‘Although my mother is unable to move around easily, she enjoys having Sukanya around and can’t stop telling her about our festivals, traditions, and the kind of life she enjoyed growing up in Kerala,’ says Meera, an HR professional working in Sharjah who lost her father about 10 years ago.
‘I have such lovely memories of enjoying my childhood with my grandparents. I learnt so much from them – about life, relationships, caring, sharing and strengthening family bonds. But now I feel my own kids are missing out on one of the most important facets of growing up because they are not able to spend as much time with their grandparents. So I make it a point to bring my mother here at least for a month every year, or take my daughter to India once a year, so she can develop a bond with my mother.’
Sukanya is not alone. Hundreds and thousands of expat children in the UAE – and perhaps across the world – are missing out on one of the most loving – and as psychologists say, important – relationships: a bond with their grandparents.
With parents busy earning a living, grandparents are generally the ones who pass on conventional wisdom to the children – whether it is about local customs, food habits or religious rituals.
But with nuclear families becoming the norm, and an increasing number of couples moving out of their family homes and countries in search of jobs, today grandparents are often relegated to a framed photograph on the wall or at best a phone call once in a while.
Does that mean grandparenting is obsolete?
Mansukh Patel, 66, a retired Indian engineer who along with his wife makes it a point to spend at least two months every year with their son and grandchildren in Dubai, doesn’t think so. ‘I’m sure there are ways to ensure that the bonds are maintained and strengthened,’ says the grandfather of two.
‘During our times very few members of the family migrated. We all stayed together, more often than not in the same house, so it was natural that grandparents and grandchildren gravitated towards each other.
‘It’s a natural affinity. Grandparents see their grandchildren as their second chance at parenting. Very rarely do we do a good job as a parent. So as parents, if we were very impatient and had little time for our children then we tend to be very patient and forgiving with our grandchildren.’
Generally grandparents were the ones with most influence on grandchildren, considering they were the ones at home to look after them. But now with most grandparents living far away, does this influence exist?
‘Certainly, especially in our case,’ says Mansukh. ‘And it’s not impossible – there are ways to make that happen. Although I live on my farm near Surat, India, with my wife Manu, 60, we ensure we spend time in the summer with our grandchildren – Mehr, 10, and Yuv, four. I make sure that distance isn’t a hindrance to grandparenting.
‘We are in that happy phase where because of technology we’re able to see and talk to our grandchildren almost every day, even if not in person. We talk to them about things that are happening in our society, what’s happening back in India, what’s happening in Dubai, what should be done – and they infer lessons from this.
‘It is almost like what we learnt at the laps of our grandparents, or our children learnt from theirs. We consider ourselves to be lucky to be grandparents in these times when it’s possible to be close to the kids in spite of being away.’
Realising that the annual holiday alone is not enough to bond with his grandchildren, Mansukh talks to them over the phone almost every day once they return to India. ‘Mehr for example asks me about festivals such as Diwali or Holi, how to prepare for them… Just like how I used to ask my grandparents. So, what’s changed? Only perhaps the proximity. While then I would sit on my grandpa’s lap, today Mehr is curled up in her bed while talking to me on phone.’
Mansukh admits that ideally he’d like to be with them, ‘then they can learn from us the right way of speaking and behaving, eating proper meals on time, etiquette and manners’, but he understands that this is not practically possible. ‘The little nuances can be missed out on when it is just conveyed orally. But that’s why we make it a point to visit them every year.’
His wife Manu has a practical take on grandparenting. ‘Our children have come here for their future, so it’s our duty to see that their children get the necessary life lessons,’ says the doting grandmother.
Even as we speak Mehr and Yuv clamber around their grandparents, wanting to know why they didn’t have breakfast that day. Mansukh and Manu explain they are fasting. ‘We are fasting now for religious reasons, but it is more than just a religious ritual,’ he tells them. ‘It is good for your health and body.’
While they are in India, Mansukh makes it a point to show the children how they do things back home. ‘We show them by video the festivals and rituals that are conducted in India, so they get a live demo,’ he says. ‘It gives them a feeling of having experienced it. And as we know, experience is the best form of education.’
However, Filipina Virginia Demetillo, 66, who looks after her grandson, Sebastian Rome Reyes, seven, at home while her daughter, Melany, 36, works as a designer, is not so happy with the changes that have occurred over the decades. ‘I don’t think the influence from grandparents exists that much anymore,’ she says.
‘Today, not many children are able to enjoy time with their grandparents because families have become more nuclear. The physical absence is a big factor. I was raised by my grandmother myself, and it had a big impact on me. I’m hoping to have a positive influence on my grandson as well.’
Melany knows what it’s like to be brought up by grandparents, which is why she requested her mother Virginia move to Dubai from her native Philippines when her son was born.
‘I grew up with my grandmother,’ says Melany. ‘We were lucky that she chose to live with us. She was a good role model, and the advice she gave us had a huge impact on us. That’s the reason I was insistent that my son too should spend some quality time with his grandparents and enjoy the fruits of their wisdom.’
However, Virginia feels that being in a country away from their own makes it a tad more difficult to teach children about customs and rituals.
‘Growing up in a foreign country is a big challenge,’ she admits. ‘It does affect how they absorb ideas about traditions. It’s very hard to teach kids something they can’t relate to. But I still try to pass on traditions as much as I can, like how we celebrate holidays, or even how we greet our elders.’
Given a chance, Virginia would prefer to care for her six grandchildren back in the Philippines. ‘It makes it easier if the kids see, hear and experience things in their home country. That way the local stories we tell them can make more sense to them,’ she says.
Melany can understand her frustrations. ‘Back home I remember how we – my four sisters and me – could so easily relate to a lot of the stories my grandma told us,’ she says. ‘Especially how they used to live, the food they had and even the very old traditions. I can see that my son has this disconnect to a lot of things we grew up with. I can imagine how hard it is for my mum to explain traditions. Maybe as my son grows older and we go on a lot more trips back home he might connect better.’
In spite of challenges, Melany is grateful for the time her mum has spent with her son. ‘She tries her best to communicate with Sebastian and widen his knowledge about our family rituals,’ she says. ‘The relationship is great and I’m thankful for that; love is a universal language.’
It’s not just the children who learn from their grandparents – there is a reverse flow of knowledge too. Virginia is not very tech-savvy and used to find it difficult to communicate with her grandchildren on the internet. But not any more.
‘When I want to engage in a conversation I try to ask my grandson about his interests, like the games he plays, and then he’s going to be the one who will tell me a story! He even teaches me how to operate smartphones and computers!
‘They are all interested in gadgets, which I cannot relate to or even understand!’ she says. ‘[Even when I am with them] there are a lot of distractions from TV, homework and gadgets. Their attention is very short for storytelling.’
Mehr considers her grandparents as friends – she’s been trying to get to plait Manu’s long hair since she saw a programme about it. ‘It’s not about whether they are here, or in India,’ she says. ‘We miss them when they are not here, but we don’t let that stop us from having fun.’
Sebastian’s grandma will be travelling to Philippines soon, and though he may not display his emotions, he misses her when she’s not around. He evinces more interest in his tablet than in the adult conversation going on around him, but suddenly he pauses, looks up and says, ‘I miss her’, before going back to his game.
It’s obvious that grandparents are a missed breed in the largely expatiate-led UAE. Mehr puts things in a child’s perspective when she says: ‘I like having both of them here. We have lots of fun when mama and papa are at work.
‘And we really miss them when we get into trouble. Grandpa-Grandma are like a shield when Mama shouts at us!’
*Names have been changed