Grandparents answer a call
More are relocating to live closer to their adult children and grandchildren.
j. michael short/special to the christian science monitor
As a third-generation native of Brownsville, Texas, Mildred Garza never planned to move away. Even when her daughter and son, both divorced, asked her to relocate to San Antonio to help with their children, she politely refused.
"My mother loves small towns and hates change," explains her daughter, Lisa Marie Gomez. Only after a year of friendly persuasion did Ms. Garza finally say yes.
That was four years ago. Today all three generations hail the move as a success, giving them a closer relationship than they would have had in separate cities.
"The children adore her, and she adores them," Ms. Gomez says.
No statistics track the number of grandparents like Garza who are pulling up stakes and moving closer to adult children and grandchildren. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend, while still modest, is growing.
In a poll released last week by Grandparents.com, 83 percent of respondents said Mrs. Robinson's high-profile relocation will redefine the importance of grandparents in the American family. Two-thirds believe more families will follow the Obamas' expanded family structure.
"In the 1960s we were all a little wild and couldn't get away from home far enough or fast enough to prove we could do it on our own," says Christine Crosby, publisher of Grand, a magazine for grandparents. "We've matured now as a generation and realize how important family is and how important it is to be near them, especially when you're raising children."
For Gomez, a single mother of three teenagers, her mother's help takes many forms.
"I used to pay a baby sitter $600 a month to pick up the kids from school at 3:30 and take them home until I returned," she says. "Now my mother picks them up every day, helps them with homework, makes them dinner, and enjoys spending time with them."
"Mamu," as the children affectionately call their grandmother, even taught Gomez's 16-year-old daughter to drive a stick-shift car and cook tortillas.
Garza, a former kindergarten teacher, laughs when she talks about her busy schedule.
"My friends ask, 'How does it feel to be retired?'" she says. "I tell them, 'I'll let you know when I get there.'"
Initially, Gomez says, the biggest challenge her mother faced was loneliness.
"She also had trouble finding her way around this city. But she now has tons of friends and is very happy."
Another contented transplant is Patricia Nan Anderson, author of "Parenting: A Field Guide." After her son and daughter-in-law's first baby was born, she experienced what she terms "the call of the grandchild." In 2005, she packed up and moved from suburban Chicago to Seattle.
Explaining her rationale, Ms. Anderson says, "When we were raising our family, we were isolated. I felt my boys grew up without that extended family connection and family history. Now it's fun hanging out with the 6-year-old and talking about the old days when his daddy was a boy."
Not everything about moving at this stage of life counts as fun. As Anderson quickly discovered, "You're starting off with a whole new set of things to learn. You need an adventurous spirit. It's a little like moving to another country. It does require a sense of openness."
Moving is not for everyone. "Almost every grandparent wants to be with his or her grandchildren and is willing to make sacrifices, but sometimes it is wiser to say no and visit frequently," says Susan Newman, author of "The Book of NO." "Having your grandchildren far away is hard, especially knowing your adult child is struggling, but giving up the life you know may be harder."
Many who do relocate insist that the tradeoffs are worth the sacrifice.
"The move from a quiet country town of 15,000 to the teeming tri-state area around New York City was hard," she says. Within two years, she and her husband of 30 years were divorced, an event she calls "traumatic." He returned to Ashland.
Today a resilient Ms. Eckhardt says, "I love being near my daughter and have adored watching the grandchildren grow. If I'd lived across the country and had only seen them occasionally, none of this could have evolved."
To those considering a move close to their children, Eckhardt offers this advice: "Be prepared for surprises. Make your own friends. Have your own life. Enjoy the grandkids but don't volunteer to be the full-time baby sitter. And take the opportunity to tell them the family stories."
Others who have relocated emphasize the need to consider the cost of moving. Employment can also be an issue.
One of the biggest challenges for Mr. Hammonds has been reestablishing his business in Seattle. Every six weeks he travels back to the Bay Area for a week.
Calling her parents' move "monumental," daughter Liz DeBord says, "The sacrifice my parents made was significant. They left nearly 35 years of dear, close friends, as well as their church and community organizations. My mom retired as a kindergarten teacher…. Selling their home in this economy was not as lucrative as they'd anticipated. There's also the Seattle rain – not to be underestimated!"
Yet whenever a challenge arises, Hammonds says, "When we put our arms around our granddaughter, it makes it all go away. Our children are the center of our universe."
Garza still misses her friends and family in Brownsville. But, she says, "It's all worth it, because my grandchildren mean the world to me. If I was back home, I'd be worried about them. If I had to do it over, I would."