Of Parents and Grandparents: A Symphony of Love

We celebrated Amah's 91st Birthday yesterday. In just three days' time, my maternal grandmother would have taken her first year into the tenth decade of her life. The grand lady gripped the harmonica purposefully. With her hands tightly grasping the metallic instrument, she blew ernestly into the holes, and spun out the tune of the great hymn "Whispering Hope". At her side, Uncle Peter, who had flown in from the UK for the occasion, tuned his ears to identify what key to play, before joining in on the guitar to smoothen out the musical piece. The symphony was completed by the rest of Amah's children and grandchildren, who formed the choir in a most uncoordinated yet harmonious manner.

Our son, Z, gazed intently at his granduncle. He watched his granduncle's deft fingers strum expertly at the guitar. With an expression of complete amazement, Z turned to look at his great-grandmother, clearly in awe at the tenacity with which she was playing the harmonica. It was clear that our young son was savouring the moment, enjoying this make-shift orchestra assembled by people he was comfortble with. My grandmother is very fond of Z. During his visits to her house, she would often play with him in the most childlike of ways, often tickling his cheeks and making baby sounds such as "boo boo boo". This was in contrast to the practical Amah who would occasionally call me to ask me if I would like some of her glutinous rice, or if the garlic that she pounded and minced for me had run out.

I'm thankful that Z is fond of his great-grandmother; as is he fond of his grandparents from both sides. From the beginning we made a conscious decision that Z should spend lots of time with his grandparents. My wife Sue had already decided to quit her full-time work as a counsellor to care for Z at home. Many Singapore mothers struggle with this decision on whether to return to their full-time jobs or whether to stay at home as a full-time carer for their children. We made the decision that Sue should be the primary caregiver for Z as that would be the best for his developmental and emotional growth. However, there would still be instances when she would have to give tuition, or to work as a part-time counsellor. It would be during those times that we would send Z over to his grandparents' homes. We felt that we did not want to employ a full-time domestic worker to take care of him - a job such as the caring for our children is too important to be delegated to someone outside of the family.

A routine was established. Z would go over to my mum's house for at least one day a week, and he would go over to Sue's parents' home on another day each week. If either parent could not make it, they would agree among themselves which day to take care of Z. Although it has taken quite a bit of planning (especially in the initial months), the arrangment has worked well for more than one year, and both grandparents have been enjoying lots of precious time with him.

There were times when we had been concerned about such an arrangment. What if we missed out on some of Z's important milestones because he was at either grandparents' home? What if our son chose to say his first word or take his first steps in our absence? Indeed there were moments during the first weeks, when both sides reported to us about what our son had done at their homes. Back then, we had wished that these incidents could have taken place in our presence; afterall we are his parents and should be the ones to experience every little moment in our child's life. There were even times when we attempted to "compete" with Z's grandparents - to see who could feed him more milk, or who could make him sleep faster.

Looking back, I realise now that the so-called Singapore habit of being kiasu (defined as being afraid of losing) had crept into our psyche without us realising it. There should never be a need to compete on whether Z's parents or grandparents do a better job at taking care of him. As parents, we should have the primary responsibility of taking care of our son. We should be the ones who should set the tone on what food he can or cannot eat, or what time he should sleep, or what activities he should do. The grandparents' roles are to be the secondary caregivers. They should be allowed to do anything they want with Z as long as we are agreeable to it.

A general adage is that it is the role of the grandparent to spoil the grandchild. This has been a difficult concept for us to manage. Imagine both grandmothers asking if they could give ice cream to your son - and the look on their faces when you tell them firmly that your son cannot eat anything that has too much sugar or salt. Or when it comes to disciplining Z for pulling someone's hair or biting. I would hold him firmly and say "Oh Oh" while at the same time removing him from the object of his attention. Onlookers observing the faces of the grandparents would imagine that the sky had fallen - all because the precious grandchild had been admonished by his father.

It was equally trying during the earlier stages after Z was born. For instance, the grandparents insisted that cloth nappies were better than disposable ones - all because they had only used such nappies when we were young and they believed that disposable diapers give babies more rashes than cloth ones. It was difficult for us, but we had to tell the grandparents lovingly that while they had used such parenting methods with us when we were young, it is now a different world and that as Z's parents, we should be the ones who should decide on how to parent our kids - even if that's not the best way. (I must acknowledge that we decided to adopt some of the suggestions made by the grandparents because in the end we felt that these methods were better; but ultimately it was our decision and not theirs - that's important as we should have the final responsibility for the care of our children.)

That said, Z has had a wonderful time with his grandparents. Sue's parents enjoy taking him for a walk to the park each time he's over at their place. Sue's father has also been researching on the Internet about the merits of babies swimming, even as he has accompanied Z for his swimming lessons during the times when we were sick or unable to take him for class. Sue's mother has been enjoying cooking for Z and making different foods for him - the latest has been a special molasses oatmeal cookie that Z thoroughly enjoys. As for my mum and stepdad, they have been enjoying many special moments playing with Z during the times when he has been at their house. My mum would buy the freshest fish from the market and prepare the most delicious porridge for him, while my stepdad would enjoy taking him for walks - even during the times when Z would want to walk into the swimming pool and would have to be prevented from doing so. They even brought back an entire leaf collection for Z during their recent holiday to Italy (Z is a true-blue nature lover and enjoys collecting leaves during his walks).

We are truly blessed that Z has so much love and attention from his grandparents. It truly makes a difference to a child's sense of identity and self-worth. "Mummy and Daddy love me; Kong Kong and Mama love me; Ye Ye and Nai Nai love me. Everybody loves me." I wish more children is Singapore would be able to experience such love and care. Working among the at-risk youths in Singapore, I know this is not the case for most of them; they don't even have a stable father and mother to care for them - not to mention the presence of grandparents to dote on them and to love them from the depths of their hearts.

As I remembered Amah's joy last night at her celebration, I recalled all the precious moments that I had spent with my own grandparents - enjoying the mee siam prepared by Amah, massaging Ah Kong each time I visited him, playing board games with Mama, eating breakfast at coffee shops with Grandpa... I know that Z will have many more special moments with his grandparents; and I know that for me, that's all that matters.

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