Children raised by their grandparents

What are the effects of distant parenting on parent-child dynamics? We investigate the implications.

The mother in the city

Nolunwabo Mdingi*, from Protea Glen, left her now 10-year-old son back in Port Elizabeth with her mother when circumstances forced her to move to Johannesburg to look for a job. The 30-year-old says she attributes her decision to leave her son to be raised by her mother to the “hustle”. Mdingi fell pregnant shortly after finishing high school, and says her mother was angry at first, and refused to be involved in any of the child care.

But two years after being home and adjusting to motherhood, Mdingi says she had an emotional conversation with her mother. “She told me that I cannot afford to let life pass me by like that, and that she would give me money to enrol for a call-centre course, and that I could come to Joburg and stay with my aunt. I was beyond shocked,” she says. 

Mdingi enrolled at the call-centre training institution, and then got a job at one of the major bank’s call centres. Eight years later, her son still lives with her mother. “My son is fine where he is. I would like for him to be grounded, and not be polluted by Johannesburg,” she says.

Another reason Mdingi does not yet want to stay with her son is financial. “I work in a call centre, and although I support myself and my family, I stay in a rented room… There are times when I have to borrow money,” she says, adding that one day she would “sort myself out, and he and I can be together, finally”.

When asked about the effects of the distance between them, Mdingi says her relationship with her son is fine. “I speak to him on the phone at least two to three times a week. I took leave over the festive season and spent all my time with him. He still calls me mom, and my mother grandmother,” she says. “I send money back home, and he knows that mommy is away because she is making a better life for him. One day, all will be all right.”

The parenting grandmother

Zingisa Mdingi*, 54, lives with her 10-year-old grandson, whom she is raising while her daughter works in Johannesburg, sending money back home to Port Elizabeth each month. “I really do not mind raising my grandson. I have a special bond with him, and he is growing up so well,” Mdingi says, adding that her daughter works hard and provides for him. “I really have no complaints.” Mdingi says her daughter will stay with her grandson when “the time is right”.

“He does miss her from time to time, and that is when we would pick the phone up and call her,” she says. “He tends to enjoy every moment he spends with her when she does visit. I also enjoy the time I spend with my grandson, so there is no harm in that.”

We spoke to child psychologist Refiloe Sebiloane, to find out more about the dynamics of distant parenting. She says it is naive for parents and grandparents to believe a child is not affected by this separation. “Any child who has to be separated from their parents is psychologically impacted,” she says. “They tend to be confused as to why their mother is not around.”

Sebiloane says, in her experience, some children blame themselves for their parents not staying with them. “This is the reason you find kids who would then refer to their grandparents as their parents, because it is a form of a security blanket. They need someone to be a mother or father figure, and who best to play that role than the people the child actually gets to see, play with, and live with every day?” she asks.

Sebiloane adds that some children grow up with resentment. She has worked with children who, after being reunited with their parent, have found it difficult. “What is worse is that some parents want to carry on as normal, as if nothing ever happened,” she says. “They want to be the primary disciplinarian, and most of the time this is met with a lot of rebellion.”

Children who grew up with grandparents

Thirty-four-year-old Zandi Sibiya*, a beautician who also spoke to us on condition of anonymity, was raised by her grandparents. Sibiya says her mother was away, and she vividly remembers her grandparents complaining. “I would constantly hear how she was busy with men, or how she was having a nice time and not caring what happened to her child,” she says. 

Although the comments were not directed at her, Sibiya says that she would often overhear her grandparents arguing when they thought she wasn’t within earshot. “They would complain about having to buy school uniforms, or how we did not have food in the house, but my mother was living nicely wherever she was,” she says. “Those bitter words really hurt me deeply, and have stayed with me since.”

Sibiya says she and her mother have never had a relationship. “She eventually got married and had my half siblings, but I always felt like the outsider, the one who got left behind,” she says. She now speaks to her mother only once in a while over the phone. She says she does not hate her mother, but: “I wish she had not brought me into this world if she knew she could not take care of me fully.” As a mother herself, Sibiya say she cannot imagine leaving her children. “They go with me where I go,” she says. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, 29-year-old Katlego Rammusa, who is in the information technology field, says being brought up by his grandparents was a blessing in disguise.

“Growing up with my grandparents, I became a very disciplined child,” he says. “Sometimes it would be difficult because of things like homework, where my grandparents had no clue what trigonometry was, but they really did their best.” Rammusa says he is thankful for all the morals and values his grandparents instilled in him, which he says he carries with him to this day.

Rammusa, who lives in Soshanguve in Pretoria, says he bears no resentment towards his mother, as he understands where she was coming from when she left him to find work. “She is my mother and I love her deeply,” he says. “In fact, seeing how she struggled when I was young gave me the motivation to succeed, and I want to do everything for her so that she never needs anything ever again in this life.” *Not their real names

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