It was 2008 and I was sitting in the green room of a radio station, waiting to be interviewed about my books, when I heard her: a softly-spoken fiftysomething telling the DJ about how desperately she missed her granddaughter. The little girl’s parents had gone through an acrimonious divorce, and as part of the fallout, one set of grandparents had been entirely cut off. All of a sudden, the child on whom this lady had lavished years of love and care was gone from her life. Worse, as the law stood then, there was nothing she could do about it.
It was a story which affected me very much. Long after the interview I found myself imagining that little girl, her world already turned upside down by her mum and dad’s bitter split, being told she could never see Grandma or Granddad again either. It seemed so unfair, for everyone. I decided then to write about what happens when families fracture in this particular way.
When I was a child, my own grandparents meant the world to me. I had just the one set and they lived round the corner, which meant that even as an infant I could take myself there unsupervised. It was a home from home. Grandma was plump and cuddly; she taught me to sew and cook, and read me The Robin Family out of Woman’s Weekly. She didn’t mind my beheading her best roses to make perfume, and forgave me for bringing in fat green caterpillars and letting them loose across her cushion covers. Granddad was a fiercely clever man, a believer in equality and education for girls and an enthusiastic reader who loved to teach me interesting facts and words. When I was in my mum and dad’s bad books, or if I’d had a crushing day at school, I knew Grandma and Granddad would always provide sanctuary. The days I spent in their chintzy Lancashire council house were sunny and calm.
Now I fully admit I’m looking back with a degree of nostalgia, that I was lucky, that not every grandparent is so kind or generous or interested. But I’ve also seen enough families to know that, in general, the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is a really special and important one.
In the novel I eventually wrote, Mothers and Daughters, grandmother Carol explains:
The emotional stability we give our grandchildren
“What about the emotional stability we gave our grandchildren? The continuous sense of who they were, where they’d come from? We were the ones with time to spend, and experience. We held the family stories. We were the ones who passed on the great secrets of their parents’ youth: that their mum was once a naughty girl, or their dad a frightened little boy. It was from us the very young often had their first exposure to disability, learning how to work round a physical restriction with practical good-humour. The love we gave was different, too: less judgemental, unclouded. Some of us had got it wrong with our own kids, but knew the way forward now and were determined to make good. All this we did willingly and for free.”
52 year old Carol has to cope with her daughter Jaz taking toddler Matty and running away, a revenge for what she sees as Carol “interfering” in her divorce. Carol then spends months fretting over where they’ve gone, or indeed whether they’ll come back at all. Even if Jaz returns, Carol knows she might still be banned from contact with the little boy she loves with all her heart.
There’s a cautiously happy ending to Mothers and Daughters, but only because Carol is tough and brave and because luck is on her side. In 2008 the law was certainly not on the side of grandparents forced apart from their grandchildren. The best they could do would be to try for a contact order, but as Carol says, “to do that I’d first have to approach the court and request permission to apply for one. Like having to ask for a key to a cupboard in which was locked the key to your door. Throughout the legal proceedings, the onus would be on me to prove I had a meaningful relationship with my grandson. Matty, my very best advocate, would be able to contribute nothing. I’d read that, in the end, the vast majority of applications by grandparents were unsuccessful, and even where they won, the order for access was often ignored. The whole process would involve officials and reports and standing up in court, and would last for months, and cost a small fortune.
Up till now the older generation have been very patient about this lack of legal status, but society needs to grasp the nettle and right the injustice. There are thirteen million grandparents in the UK, providing a massive sixty per cent of the country’s child care. Without their input, the job market would collapse and families go under, lose their houses, fall apart. If grandparents ever chose to go on strike, make no mistake, there would be economic crisis.
So for all kinds of reasons, the new 2013 recommendations for a change to the law are very welcome. And not before time, I would say.
Kate Long is the author of Mothers & Daughters