Memories of the day you bring your new baby home for the first time are vivid. Nerves and any feelings of apprehension about the future melt away amid the joy of carrying your newborn through the door. But for Jill Wilson, there was also a shadow of sadness cast over that important day.
“My mum died suddenly when I was 10 and, despite the years that had passed, I felt her loss more when I became a mother myself,” Jill reveals. “I remember looking down at this little boy, aching with love for him and thinking to myself: ‘I have no idea what to do with you.’ It was awful. I had no experience and no idea about being a mother, and there was no-one around to tell me.”
Jill’s predicament is one shared by many new parents. Whether it’s because we’re starting our families later in life or careers have taken us away from our home towns, more and more Aussies are bringing up children without the support of their own parents.
Hannah Dahlen, from the Australian College of Midwives, says she and her colleagues who lead mothers’ groups are seeing increasing numbers of women with little or no support from immediate family. “It’s a significant issue for women who are from overseas and especially from cultures where mothers and mothers-in-law play a major role in the parenting,” she says.
Life today as a new parent can be lonely. “We know that feelings of isolation and lack of support put women at greater risk of postnatal depression. This is where our services come into play. But there is a point where the mother has to seek out others for her support network. There comes a time when you have to ask yourself: ‘Who is around and how do I get them into my life?’” Hannah says.
During her first pregnancy, Cate Kloos thought services like ‘leihoma’ in her native Germany would be readily available to her here in Australia. Literally translated as ‘surrogate grandmother’, leihoma is a council scheme that matches up families in need of support with volunteer seniors.
It wasn’t long after her daughter Amelie’s birth, though, that Cate realised her mistake. “To say I was disappointed is a bit of an understatement,” she recalls. Skype catch-ups with her doting Oma and Opa back in Germany meant baby Amelie was able to forge some kind of bond with her grandparents, but Cate still felt something was missing.
Meanwhile, Jill “soldiered on” for months after the birth of her first child. “They say that motherhood is learning by feel and that’s exactly what I did,” she explains. “I struggled not to seem ungrateful, though. I had – and still have – wonderful women around me for support, but absolutely no-one replaces your own mum.”
After reading about Motherless Mothers, a peer support group for mums of young children whose own mothers have died, Jill went along to a meeting in Sydney. By this time she was heavily pregnant with her second child and with the cups of tea and empathy, Jill found a much-needed forum to deal with her loss.
“I was able to talk about Mum with people who understood and it was a massive relief,” says Jill. “It’s certainly not therapy, but through the group I realised there were issues I needed to address elsewhere,” she adds.
Apart from missing their mums, Jill and Cate have something else in common – both women reached out to other women and have established services to help them. For Jill, there was the decision to set up a branch of Motherless Mothers closer to her home in Baulkham Hills, NSW.
At monthly meetings, the group offers a comfortable environment for women to remember, talk about and celebrate their mums. Jill stresses that it’s never dreary. “There are plenty of tears, but they’re healthy ones, and there are plenty of laughs too,” she says. The meetings often include a professional guest speaker who leads activities and discussions on subjects including grief counselling, art therapy and managing the work-life balance.
For Cate, the arrival of her second child, Luca, galvanised her into action. She decided to set up Find A Grandparent (www.findagrandparent.org.au), a not-for-profit website aimed at connecting young families with surrogate grandparents. “My relationship with my own granny was very important when I was growing up and I’d like Amelie and Luca – and children like them – to have something similar,” she says.
Doing it for the kids
Parents aren’t the only ones who can miss out when their mum and dad aren’t around: research shows that children can greatly benefit from having a close senior friend or family member, too.
In 2009, a study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed that most Aussie grandparents have a close connection with their grandkids, with relationships with maternal grandparents often being the strongest. And according to an Australian Bureau of Statistics report, grandparents are Australia’s largest providers of informal childcare, with grandmas and grandpas providing childcare to one in five kids from under one year to the age of 11.
So it’s clear that children who are lucky enough to have Nan and Pop around are seeing a lot of them. And it’s a valuable dynamic for both parties, say experts.
One study of more than 10,000 Australian families revealed that children aged between three and 19 months had higher learning scores if they were cared for by grandparents as well as their parents, for example.
Kimberley O’Brien, principle child psychologist at www.quirkykid.com.au, isn’t surprised. “The grandparent role has always been a nurturing one,” she says. “They are your child’s link to the past and because Nana will travel at a similar pace, has more spare time and, in most cases, probably isn’t that technologically savvy, she’s bound to seem more ‘available’ to the child.”
So what about those youngsters who don’t have their grandparents in their lives? Kimberley says it’s important that parents seek out and encourage their children to forge relationships with people from a different generation.
“If parents model behaviours like popping next door to check on an older neighbour, offer to walk the dog, mow the lawn or share a regular cuppa, kids soon appreciate how to respect and value older people and feel a need to connect with them themselves,” she says.“There doesn’t have to be a blood tie in order for your child and an older friend to develop a mutually beneficial, healthy relationship,” Kimberley assures.