Family life

Are you my Grandma?: The trouble with Grandparents Day

A seemingly innocent elementary school event causes a stir in Tara-Michelle Ziniuk's household.

Anna-grandparents-parenting

Anna spends some quality time with her great-grandmother. Photo: iStockphoto

My four-year-old daughter Anna wants to know if she has grandparents. Once every day or so, she asks, “Mama, do I have grandparents?” It’s a simple enough question, but for me it’s heartbreaking.

Despite having had two parents and two stepparents growing up, I often tell people I don’t have parents. My father died when I was young, and I only kept in touch with my stepmom until I hit my late-teens. My stepfather and I never had a good relationship, which was part of why I moved out at a very young age. He and I have had minimal contact since, and he and my daughter do not know each other. My mother and I have had a complicated relationship at best, which has been become much more sparse—my decision—since Anna was born.

Since I don’t have much family, and because she’s an only child, Anna continues to mix up the terms for relatives. Grandmother, brother, aunt—to her understanding, she doesn’t have these relatives and other kids do.

When I received the March calendar for her kindergarten class, it announces that Grandparents’ Day will be taking place this upcoming Friday afternoon. Grandparents are invited to the school, and the children will be performing for them. Anna is ecstatic to be on stage, and would like to know if her grandparents can make it—and she wants to know who they are, and if they even exist.

When I talk to other parents about the school’s Grandparents’ Day, there is a mixed reaction. For some, it’s easy: Their families have live-in grandparents, or grandparents nearby who see their grandkids often. For others, their kids’ grandparents live out of town, out of the country or even overseas in some cases. Some have grandparents who are divorced, and have to navigate around that. For others, the main concern is how to invite one set of grandparents without the other side being offended (or, without the other finding out). One mother told me her children have lost two grandparents in the last nine months, and that she assumes this will be a difficult day for them. Grandparents are often the first deaths kids experience—so how could the school not have considered this?

“Is Grandparents’ Day even a real thing?” one parent asks. When I investigate, it seems National Grandparents’ Day is indeed a real occasion, but it falls on the second Sunday in September. It seems the date was made an official national holiday in the US back in 1978, and in Canada in 1995. There have been Grandmother’s Day and Grandfather’s Day celebrations held separately in Poland since the mid-’60s, and some Australian states have picked up the holiday as recently as 2010.

When I checked to see if the day was marked in the calendars for September, March or any other time by other schools within the school board, I find that some do. At some schools the date is positioned as part of honouring intergenerational relationships. This is something I can get behind, and the concept of the event in general doesn’t offend me, it’s just difficult for me and my daughter. If my own grandmother lived closer, I would invite her and it would be relatively easy.

Perhaps less complicated, but still difficult, is Anna’s relationship to her other parent’s family. Quite the opposite of my own, he has a huge family he’s quite close to. Anna spends a lot of time with them: His parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and their kids. Anna calls them all, adults and kids alike, by their first names. We talk about them being “like cousins” but she is adamant that they are his family and not hers, despite the fact that she likes them and enjoys their company.

For me, this works well. At the start of Anna’s life, I was a single parent. His family was less-than-gracious about my having a baby when we met, and his decision to continue being involved with me. They’re very traditional, and the whole thing was too much for them, which manifested in anger and hurt feelings. After he grew closer to Anna, and we arrived at the—albeit unclear—decision to co-parent, his parents became quite fond of Anna. At one point, they brought up Anna calling them a variation of Grandma and Grandpa because they weren’t comfortable with a young child calling them by their first names. For me, it was too much too soon, especially without an acknowledgement of our rocky history. A further discussion didn’t come easily, and so the default has remained—Anna calls them by their first names, and refers to them as her other parent’s parents. In all honesty, I think it’s good that she has them, and that they treat her well.

Stumped, I ask Anna if she’d like her other parent’s mother to come. “Is she my grandparent?” Anna asks. “Kind of?” I say, not knowing how to respond. “Do you want to ask her?”

“Ask her if she wants to be my grandparent?” Anna’s response is unexpected. Yet again, I am at a loss for an answer.

How well would a school Grandparents’ Day work for your family?

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

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