Neal Milner: The Art Of Long-Distance COVID Grandparenting - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

NOTE: pick the correct linkThis week, smack in the middle of the big jump in COVID cases, our son and granddaughter are coming from Portland to visit for the first time in almost two years.

COVID-19 is so much about distance. So is family life in Hawaii. It makes such a difference whether a family is clustered close to one another or scattered far apart. Hawaii has extremes of each.

We have so many short-distance families — brothers, sisters, cousins, parents and grandparents living within easy reach of one another. Often that reach is just across the breakfast table because there are so many multigenerational families living in one house.

There are also many families, like mine, at the other extreme, with parents, grandparents and children scattered from coast to coast and then some.

For short-distance people, family gatherings are just part of life. They gather all the time, often don’t even think of them as gatherings. They just happen.

Sure, there are formal celebrations, but people don’t have to wait for a special occasion to get together. Stay for dinner when you pick up the kids. We’ve got plenty.

Long-distance families, on the other hand, need to plan, work things out in advance. It involves a trip, a “visit” as in “when will you be visiting your daughter?” “When is your son’s family coming to visit?”

“Where are you going on vacation?” “To see my kids.”

When, where, for how long, what do they need, what do we bring?

It’s part of grandparenting DNA to worry about your children and grandchildren. But short-distance grandparents can test their worries by checking out their family in the flesh. That’s not always pleasant, but it’s real.

Long-distance grandparents can only rely on their imagination with the rickety assistance of FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom.

Those tools are better than nothing but not even close to the same. We traveled to Portland a few weeks ago where I saw my 9-year-old granddaughter Vivienne in person for the first time in almost two years. She looked about a foot taller than she appeared on FaceTime and acted in ways that FaceTime only hinted at. Nine? Really? Who knew? We didn’t.

When long-distance grandparents make family visits, they must relearn grandparenting, not in a self-conscious way like you do in grandparenting classes (yeah, they really exist). Rather, in small ways, picking up on small things — life’s everyday rhythms in a different setting.

It is the same for them when they visit us.

COVID-19 does not change this pattern, but it raises the ante big time for getting it right.

When it comes to COVID, the risk for close-distance families is overfamiliarity. Huddling together is a super spreader. Intimacy may make the heart grow fonder, but it can also make COVID rates go up.

That of course is never an issue with my scattered family. The risk for long-distance families like mine is ambiguity and uncertainty, combined with a different super spreader, which is called anxiety.

I worried about what it was really like for my son and his family, who lived in Brooklyn until they moved to Portland a few months ago, to live in a neighborhood that was a few miles from New York City’s COVID-19 epicenter, or how my daughter was doing working in a large temporary homeless shelter on the edge of downtown Portland.

Our recent Portland trip went fine. Pandemic apprehension did not totally go away, but the trip was a wonderful reunion. Under the COVID circumstances, things felt in control. The rates were down, most people wore masks when they were supposed to, the kids were back in school.

Because our granddaughter had just turned 9, she is not vaccinated. Still, the family protection protocol was well in place. Concern, but things were under control. We stayed at an Airbnb nearby.

Now it’s their turn to visit. Things are very different, and not just because the case rates are up.

Last week, when the Hawaii cases really jumped, it was tempting to tell them not to come.

Joy and I talked about it, but we did not tell them to stay home because we did not want our anxieties to be the only thing to guide our decision.

Mainly, we did not think it was our decision to make alone. When it comes to adjusting to pandemic life, my son and his family have a lot more experience than I do. Because of their experiences and because they are sensible adults, they deserved to make a final decision.

The pleasures of grandparenting are tempered by the realities of the pandemic. Courtesy of Neal Milner

Vivienne has been looking forward to this visit for, oh, about the entire epidemic. School for her starts in a month, so this would be her last chance for a long, long time.

We gave our son and daughter-in-law the information about Hawaii, told them we were not saying they should cancel but wanted them to know the situation.

They were less concerned than we were. So, we will see them in the flesh, come Thursday.

In short, there’s a lot more flux, uncertainty and anxiety on our part than there was just a few weeks ago. Much of that is because of the case count. Much of it is also about the grandparent-relearning process that has to kick in once again.

Joy and I have learned how to accommodate the ups and downs of the pandemic on our turf. We have our routines and rules. They are second nature by now.

It’s funny how much bringing in two new people, including an unvaccinated child, changes that formula. Not just new routines, but my mental map of Oahu itself is changing because I have to see the place through different eyes.

By now I can lay out my own thorough map of Oahu showing what’s safe and fun. Big surprise, the map skews old.

Don’t get me wrong. I am looking forward to the visit. We are a solid family, and Viv is a great kid. Some of the shtick we usually have done with her should still work, like swimming, seeing the views from Kamehame Ridge at night or checking out the flocks of chickens behind Kaiser High School. Reading together, wandering around, buying her clothes.

And her teaching us stuff. She loves to teach people stuff anytime, anywhere, on any subject that comes to her mind.

Other faves of hers, like eating at Zippy’s, or playing with the neighbor kids who don’t wear masks like her Portland friends — we’ll have to think about that. Actually, we’ll let our son decide while we worry.

Grandparenting script summary, Aug. 5-23, 2021:

Think but don’t overthink. Be careful but don’t be obsessive. Just follow the script and forget about the COVID rates.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Just had a wonderful in-person visit for nearly 2 weeks from children & grandchildren -- the first in over a year and a half.While there are some limitations -- Hanauma Bay & Pearl Harbor are nearly impossible -- many wonderful local restaurants offer take-out, and there is always The Beach, which is a surefire grandchild pleaser. Also, we recommend the Zoo, Aquarium, and Bishop Museum, among other great local activities for visiting family of all ages.Enjoy your family!

hoipolloi · 2 years ago

Mr. M, You are a gentleman and a scholar.. and most importantly, you and your wife are fabulous grandparents.  I can tell!

cavan8 · 2 years ago

Right on the Kini Po-Po, Neal!   Been hankering to visit the kids and grandkids since the last time we saw them on the mainland just before everything shut down last year. With them spread out from Vegas to the East coast (and embedded in the hotspots),  there is a lot of flying and crowd exposure along the way.  But the draw to see them is too great, not to chance the current surge we have going on. We’ll get to see two new grandchildren of one daughter and be in awe how the rest of the grandkids have grown during this pandemic.  The concerns of cross-exposures is a real thought and you’re right when two separate households with different house rules come together how do they quickly come to terms?  But the savoring thought of wrapping our arms around everyone and holding new grandkids for the first time is also part of the DNA of families and grandparents. 

Rampnt_1 · 2 years ago

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