I wanted my kids to have relationships with older generations, but their grandparents lived far away. 

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When my husband Mark and I had our first baby seven years ago, we knew it would be hard for him to see his grandparents very often. 

My parents live more than 400 miles away (that’s an eight hour drive for two adults; add three small children, and it becomes a two-day extravaganza). My in-laws are almost 300 miles away in the summer; in the winter, they’re a three-day drive south. Our kids would see their grandparents once or twice a year. I thought that would be enough.

I was wrong.

Three kids later, I began to yearn for grandparents—regular, in-town grandparents, who would see our kids often and be a part of their everyday lives. I watched grandparents picking up grandkids at preschool, the four-year-olds naturally falling into step with the grandmas and grandpas they knew so well. My heart would ache knowing my kids would never have that kind of relationship with their own grandparents. I wanted grandparents who could come to Grandparents’ Day at school, who would know my kids’ friends by first name, who could stop by for an impromptu weeknight dinner.

When I accepted the geography of our situation, I realized that what I wanted for my kids were relationships with different generations. And if my biological family couldn’t fulfill that role, there were others who could. I began to look for “surrogate grandparents,” and I saw them everywhere.

Starting right next door. Our neighbor Betty and her late husband, Don, lived in their house for more than 50 years, raising five children. Now, they have a slew of biological granddaughters and two great-grandsons, plus three “adopted grandchildren.” Betty loves kids. She is the grandma my kids visit after school, whose floor they sit on to watch cartoons, whose candy dish they raid. Betty’s name was one of my kids’ first words, as they call it over the fence on summer afternoons. When my four-year-old daughter learned to play Go Fish, she sat with Betty at her dining room table and taught her how to play. Betty has watched each of my kids learn to ride a bike. She knows their friends. She holds impromptu backyard ice pop parties. This is the grandma who will wave out the window, clutching her robe on a cold winter morning as my son boards the school bus.  

Besides geography, another problem we have faced as parents is age. We were older when we had kids, so our parents are not sprightly 60-year-olds who can hopscotch down the sidewalk. Even though my dad would probably love to take his grandchildren fishing, he’s not able to physically do it.

So the second set of surrogate grandparents we found were friends of ours who are old enough to be grandparents, yet young enough to keep up with little kids. We share similar interests, like travel and the outdoors. When we’re together, we go for boat rides, have bonfires, and hike. On our last visit, hiking through the woods, our friend Patti pointed out the birdhouses to my daughter, and pretty soon our girl was stopping every 10 feet, begging Patti to lift her up so she could peer into each one. Patti had become the grandma who teaches my children about nature, who lifts our daughter to reveal its treasures.

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Inspired by these sets of grandparents, we’ve recently entered into a more formal surrogate grandparents relationship. My friend Mary and her husband are in their 60s and do not have children. Now in retirement, they had been thinking of ways to be more involved in kids’ lives. They considered becoming mentors in a local program, but were unsure about making the weekly commitment. Becoming “foster grandparents” with a more flexible schedule seemed more their speed. So we arranged a picnic in the park for them to meet our kids. Like a junior high dance, it took a while for the two groups to mix. Adults sat talking at the picnic table while our kids climbed the play structure. I ventured over to the playground, and Mary followed, and pretty soon we were all down wading in the creek, hunting crayfish. I realized that if you’ve never spent much time with kids, it takes a while to acclimate. We’re not sure how this will work, but we’re exploring new territory together, hoping that one day, they will be regular, surrogate grandparents in our kids’ lives.

Obviously, biological ties can’t be replaced, and when our kids see their biological grandparents, there is a family connection. But having more opportunities for caring relationships with surrogate grandparents helps us all out. Our kids have a lot to learn from adults other than their parents. And the grandparents we bring into our family get to re-live childhood experiences—like playing Go Fish, or peering into a birdhouse for the first time, or wading in a creek on a summer night, hunting for crayfish. In all of this, I’ve found that, as parents, if we don’t have the relationships we need, we can seek them out.

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