En español | Cathy Halchak just wants to hold her newborn grandson, Benjamin, who was born in April. But the coronavirus pandemic has prevented the 60-year-old grandmother from getting any snuggle time.
Halchak, of Cincinnati, says her doctor advised against flying to Alaska to meet her newest grandson, the first child of her youngest son. Her travel plans would have involved three flights and four airports. She and her husband are both at risk of contracting COVID-19.
"You just want to have a chance to hold him,” says Halchak, who also worries she can't help as much by giving the new parents a break if the baby is up all night or by bringing meals. “We are missing out on a lot, and it's out of our control."
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COVID-19 has robbed grandparents of many experiences. But that special moment of meeting a grandbaby for the first time has, for many, been yanked away by the pandemic and been replaced by an agonizing wait.
Find other ways to connect
The anguish is widespread. A recent survey of nearly 1,400 grandparents by United Kingdom–based grandparenting site Gransnet found that 69 percent hadn't met their new grandchildren since the end of March and 76 percent hadn't hugged or touched any of their grandchildren in the same period. For many grandparents, this is taking a toll.
Terri J. Correa, 58, and her husband, Norbert, drove from Phoenix to meet their six-weeks-premature granddaughter in mid-July but were unable to enter the hospital to see her. They had to leave before she was released.
Not meeting the baby in person was “heartbreaking,” but Correa gets on Facetime several times a week to see her, which helps, and is relieved that her granddaughter is thriving. “I’m grateful that she arrived safe and healthy in the face of a frightening virus,” Correa says.
Halchak, however, has found ways to connect. She and her husband stay present in her grandson's life (and his parents’ lives) through Facetime, and she uses an Amazon Echo video to watch Benjamin in his bouncy chair, to talk and sing to him, and to read him stories.
"He's familiar with our voices and has started to turn his head and look and respond. … We are doing everything we humanly can, even though we're 3,000 miles apart,” she says. “We've come to accept it isn't going away anytime soon."
Although new parents may be legitimately worried about exposing an infant to any illness, including COVID-19, the greater threat may actually be to grandparents themselves, who are often in the high-risk category due to age or preexisting conditions. Travel could expose grandparents to the coronavirus. What's more, family members — even those without symptoms — could unknowingly infect older relatives.
Experts recommend that if you preparing to meet a newborn grandchild soon, all parties should quarantine for two weeks before gathering, even if people appear to be asymptomatic.
Hard to provide support
For Albert and Sandra Davis (73 and 70, respectively), of Philadelphia, their experience after the birth of their newborn grandson, Jacob, is vastly different from past introductions to their other grandchildren. For one thing, Sandra wasn't able to be present at Jacob's birth, in May, something she was able to do previously.
Ways to Help New Parents From Afar
- Use video chat technology, such as Zoom and Facetime, to observe milestones like smiling and rolling.
- Don't give advice unless asked for it (which can be the tendency when the only option is chatting over the phone).
- Send meals, but don't forget the impact that snail mail can have. A gift package, a letter, a poem, a book or something sentimental that has shared family meaning is appreciated.
- Try to distract older children with games and stories, via video chat, to give parents a break and allow them to focus on the newborn.
- Use technology to frequently talk to, sing to and interact with, a grandchild.
- Provide empathy and support to new parents, and acknowledge the sadness they're likely feeling over the limitations of social distancing and the pandemic.
"The bonding process and excitement that takes place is unbelievable, to hold a newborn baby,” she says.
Albert was also looking forward to participating in Jacob's bris, a Jewish circumcision ceremony, though technology allowed more relatives than usual to attend the event virtually.
On top of that, their son-in-law was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 and is quarantining in a separate bedroom while the rest of the family awaits testing. That means the young Seattle-based family can't receive hands-on help from anyone, including grandparents. The Davises’ daughter is caring for the family's newborn and 2-year-old on her own for the time being.
"It's really, really hard for everybody. Everybody loses ... the children, the grandchildren,” Sandra says. “It's something that can't be redone. They are only born once."
Newborns aren't the only ones missing the grandparents. Advocates for new parents are concerned, especially for mothers who may be recovering both physically and emotionally from childbirth.
Postpartum coach Chelsea Skaggs says many new moms and dads are struggling without family support during the pandemic. She's seeing “grief and lament” from parents who are missing their own parents through the new-baby period, when they would typically be receiving visits and food, and sharing special moments.
Though waiting is hard, grandparents say that when everyone finally feels safe to visit, the first in-person meeting with a grandchild will be special.
Grandparents Elena and Daniel Amsili (62 and 65, respectively), of Aventura, Florida, waited breathlessly for the first glimpse of their new grandchild over a video connection.
"We were desperate to talk and see them,” Elena says. “It was very emotional to see the new member of the family [via Facetime].”
To protect everyone's health, Elena stopped working on March 13 to quarantine at home, anticipating a visit with her new grandchild in New York. Elena is originally from Colombia, where family are typically very involved in a newborn's life.
But when Elena finally made the trip, her husband had to stay home because he has diabetes and is at high risk for COVID-19.
Elena “cried for happiness” when she saw the baby and stayed for a month, wearing a mask during the day. She regularly did Facetime calls with her husband to keep him involved.
"It was an amazing experience for me to be there and help them,” she recalls. “People used to tell me that children are special, but grandchildren are magical.”