The Hawaii grandparent tariff has the same costs and origins as the general tariff we pay for living here, but these psychological and economic costs apply to grandparents in a particular way.

We often think about the tariff that parents with young families pay when they decide to uproot and move back to be near grandma and grandpa. They sell their house on the mainland knowing that they will have to make do with something smaller In Hawaii. They give up better paying jobs.

Now let’s look at the grandparent side of things by considering some of their stories, including mine because I am a grandparent tariff payer.

Elderly woman window

Because Hawaii is so isolated, grandparenting here is different. At one extreme are the grandparents who live very close to their children and grandchildren, thanks to housing costs — possibly even in the same house. At the other extreme are those whose grandchildren live a long plane ride away.

My wife Joy and I use Skype to connect with our 2-year-old granddaughter in Brooklyn. It’s both lovely and sad. It’s lovely because we can see and talk to her. She does her best body of work in the tub. “Itsy Bitsy Spider” never sounded so good.

It’s sad because we can’t hold her or drop by, spur of the moment, to surprise her. A kiss through two computer screens is not even close to the same.

She and her parents were just here for a two-week visit. It was wonderful, but so intense, a loving chaos of noise, dancing and grandma and grandpa time. The visit clock constantly ticked. From the day he got here, my son worried that the visit would go too fast. Alongside all of the fun and joy, I had a feeling of quiet—who am I kidding? —noisy desperation. Borrowed time, sad it will end … but when will it ever end.

I’m both proud and ashamed to say that it wiped us out.

Or as a friend in Milwaukee e-mailed, “The visit sounded a lot like how we feel after a week with our grandchildren up north [at their lake cottage] – loved loved loved having them, when the hell are they leaving?”

Sure, but when they are not at the cottage, the friend lives only 15 minutes away from her grandchildren. She regularly sees them in small doses. I have to wait months.

Because Hawaii is so isolated, grandparenting here is different, more at the extremes. At one extreme are the grandparents who live very close to their children and grandchildren, thanks to housing costs — possibly even in the same house. At the other extreme are those like myself whose grandchild lives a long plane ride away.

There is no middle ground, no place a hundred miles and an easy drive away.

The tariff for long-distance grandparents is obvious.  It involves basic “price of paradise” kinds of stuff: the costs of visiting a place 5,000 miles away, the housing and salary situation that keeps my kids from moving back and the frustrating sense of isolation.

Long-distance grandparents spend an enormous amount of time planning visits to their grandchildren: Can we make it part of a longer trip? Is that a good time for us to go? A good time for the kids? Will the grandchildren be in school? In camp? Do we stay with the family? If not, where can we get a good rate? How much time — or how little time — do we want to stay? Where will we get the money?

Sometimes grandparents adopt more extreme strategies to deal with distance, like this one that a friend told me about:

Jane [not her real name] was a small business owner who lived all of her life in the same town in Hawaii. When Jane was close to 60, her daughter in Boston got pregnant with her first child. Jane turned her business over to her son and moved to Boston to take care of the child. Just like that, to a brutally cold place full of strangers. When the daughter and son-in-law decided to move across the country to take new jobs, she moved along with them.

Maybe Jane was adventurous, maybe she was tired of Hawaii, but the dislocation from Honolulu to a cold place she had never lived before had to be hard. You can love your grandchild and still feel that your change from business owner to nanny has its costs.

Imagine trying to make new friends at the end of an exhausting day taking care of children.

Jane may have willfully paid the price, but it is important to remember that there was indeed a price to pay. When my friend in Milwaukee drives over to take care of her grandchildren, she is just a babysitter, not an uprooted urban pioneer.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City

Labor of love or not, for many local grandparents, child care is a logistical struggle.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Grandparents whose grandchildren live nearby also pay a price. When I complain about the distance, a Honolulu friend who has six grandchildren living near her says that I should be careful what I wish for. She’s kidding (I think). But there’s something to what she means. Grandparenting in Hawaii is really hard.

For economic reasons Hawaii grandparents spend an especially large amount of time taking care of their grandchildren. It really is part and parcel of grandparenting: I have them every day. Three days a week after my workout, I take care of my grandchildren.

Grandparents are free babysitters in a place where so many workers can barely keep their heads above water. That is golden. You just retired? Here’s your new job. You’ll need diapers.

A friend along with her husband takes care of her granddaughter four full days a week. To get there, they have to get up at 3:30 in the morning to beat the traffic.

The joke is that it is going to be harder for my friend than her granddaughter to adjust to pre-school. Maybe so, but don’t you think there will be some sense of relief?

When we first moved to Hawaii 40 years ago, we couldn’t figure out why so many old people were walking with children in the morning. They looked too old to be parents. They were grandparents walking their grandchildren to school.

Public school parents often get district exemptions not because the school they choose is so good but because it is near grandma and grandpa, who can pick them up after school and take care of them for the rest of the afternoon. Live in Kuliouou; each school day drive past their neighborhood school, one of three highly rated elementary schools close by, in order to drop the kids off at the grandparents in Palolo so they can go to Palolo Elementary.

Labor of love or not, for many local grandparents, child care is a logistical struggle. Here’s another story:

Two grandparents who live in Central Oahu drive to town each morning to pick up their grandchild and then immediately drive him back to their home. At the end of the day they drive the child back to Honolulu, followed by yet another foray into Red Hill and points west.

That’s four twenty-mile trips a day, two during rush hour. Who does this?

They do this because they have more room in their home and because it gives the grandparents more time in their own surroundings, a little bit of autonomy and control. This may seem crazy, but it meets their needs.

In his Feb. 23 Civil Beat column, Eric Pape writes that Hawaii’s cost of living “is intimately intertwined with our lives.” The cost of living here creates “absurd situations and novel ways that people … face up to the price of paradise.”

Intimate, absurd and novel — that’s a perfect description of Hawaii grandparenting. It is a constant struggle, a rat race, like the itsy bitsy spider that after each rain goes up the spout again.

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