Saturday 17 November 2018

Why punish the grandparents when a marriage goes wrong?

This article first appeared on Malta Today

I’m at an age now when most of my contemporaries are grandparents. Of these, a good number also perform the essential, crucial role of being caregivers for their grandchildren, allowing both parents to work outside the home. I can see from my friends and acquaintances that it is a role which requires stamina, patience and unconditional love – something which is easy to give when one is besotted by one’s grandkids, as most people are. Even with the availability of free childcare which has enabled so many women to enter the workforce or go back to their careers much quicker than they normally would have, the role of the grandparents is still required, because drop off times and pick up times are not always conveniently, magically timed to fit in with one’s place of work. Flexibility is still considered an unacceptable F-word by many employers, and not everyone has the luxury of tailoring their workday around school hours, so women have to make other arrangements if they want to keep working. And let’s not forget the many school holidays and the long stretch of summer during which children still need to be cared for and kept occupied.

It is for this reason that many of the people you see at playgrounds pushing the swings and at school gates waiting to take trusting little hands into theirs, are over 50. Pushing prams, and carrying school satchels, actively-involved grandparents are everywhere, gladly helping out by taking over the role of primary caregivers, several days of the week, and in some cases every day. They ensure children are given something to eat after school, get them started on homework, and in cases where the parents work long hours, they even take them to catechism lessons, and other extra-curricular activities. It is like having one’s own very precious, very loving ‘nanny’ but with the added bonus of having the person who gave birth to you and raised you, also being the one taking care of your equally precious child.

Of course, the majority of parents are deeply grateful for the selflessness of this act – for make no mistake, one has to be very selfless to agree to take over childcare duties at a point in your life when you thought, “Ah, I am finally free to do what I want, whenever I want, without having to cope any more with the cares and responsibilities which the raising of young or teenage children brings with it.” But then, the grandkids come along, and some grandparents find themselves raising little ones again, for the second time around. The joints are a bit stiffer and the energy is not what it used to be – and yet, the joy and happiness of little children is an almost irresistible magical potion which is hard to say no to.

Even when grandparents do not fulfill this caregiving role, but simply function as our grandparents used to, when visiting Nanna’s house was a once a week treat, the bond between grandkids and grandparents is a very important one during childhood. It is a special type of relationship which is both endearing and touching as the child feels the security of growing up within a loving, extended family.

So, can you imagine how grandparents must feel when, through no fault of their own, the door to their contact with their grandchildren is suddenly slammed shut, and they are shunned?

Unfortunately, the disruption caused when a marriage hits the rocks sometimes puts paid to the smooth, natural rhythm of the child-parents-grandparents relationship. When it is particularly acrimonious, a separation/divorce leaves so many casualties, usually in the form of fathers (or mothers) who are deliberately alienated from their children. And, when there is this type of estrangement, it tends to cause a ripple effect and the next to suffer a blow are usually the grandparents.

To redress this, the founder of the Grandparents’ Foundation, Philip Chircop, this week petitioned the House to consider legal procedures to protect the rights of grandparents to see their grandchildren.

According to the report in the Times, Mr Chircop cited examples, “where parents forbade their children to speak to their grandparents, or simply refused to take them to see them. He spoke of the loneliness felt by grandparents forgotten in their old age and of the unfortunate circumstances which often resulted from the divorce or separation of their children.”

I find this to be truly heartbreaking, for why should grandparents be made to suffer and practically punished, when a marriage goes wrong? Here we are not talking about cases where parents may have valid, justifiable reasons for preventing such contact between grandparents and grandchildren, but cases where the refusal to grant visits is being done out of spite to hurt the former spouse.

At a time when Malta is grappling to cope with a new social reality of fractured, fragmented families, the least we can do is to try and make a marital break-up as easy as possible for the children. They would have suffered enough trauma knowing that Mummy or Daddy are not coming home again, so why inflict on them the realization that another important familial relationship – that with one set of grandparents – has also been inexplicably and irretrievably closed off to them? Such behaviour is nothing short of cruel.

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