Last Sunday, when I wished an elderly couple for Grandparents Day, they didn’t look too excited. They said they were so exhausted most of the time that all they wanted to do was rest–they just didn’t have the energy to match their twin grandchildren’s. They had expected life to be very different when their grandchildren came along to visit. Oh, they love them dearly, but do wish that their own kids wouldn’t take them for granted with the childcare.
But if you were to ask my Mom this question, she would have happily answered with a resounding “Yes!” Of course she’d be speaking for herself. I guess I was one of the truly lucky ones to have such a close bond with my Mom, with the relationship segueing into a loving connection that included my husband, and later, my son when he was born.
When I was pregnant, she was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease and a lung fibrosis. The doctors, after all the investigations were done over a couple of months, gave her, at most, six months to live. I still remember the sparkle in her eye and the laughter in her voice as she shook her finger at the doctor, and told him, “I am not going until I see my grandson grow and reach high school. I have so much to do with him! That’s a promise!”
Well, she almost fulfilled her promise, living for a good twelve years after that, much to the shocked surprise of the doctors who treated her. While her health was unpredictable, her mood was a constant “up” cheering us all on through our own ups and downs in life.
So coming back to that question about grandmothers becoming babysitters…
I grew up with my own grandmother, who was a figure of strength in my life and of course I was completely influenced by her. Ours was a matriarchal family, with my grandfather passing away far too soon and it was my grandmother who was the “ruler” in the family, presiding over us with her magic wand. We had children in the house almost all the time—cousins, neighbor’s kids and friend’s children. Those days, life was different. Many of my friends were raised in joint families where it was quite natural for children to be cared for by their grandparents. Things like “expectations”, “unfair” did not come into the picture. The entire family, including extended family functioned as a single unit.
Not so, these days.
Life and lifestyles have changed in many ways. Both parents go to work in most families and, in fact, the joint family system is also quite rare. Natural in most cases, with family members being spread geographically. In some cases, they are happy to stay in touch, and in some, not so much.
I know many families where the grandparents look forward to looking after their grandchildren. But there are many that do not feel that way, and they have valid reasons for it. They are not pleased that their own children assume that they will continue their parenting journey with their grandkids, without stopping to think about whether they’re willing to do it.
So the question of whether grandparents are becoming babysitters itself is a prickly one. When parents continue to live with their children, or even in the same neighborhood, there seems an unspoken assumption that it is their natural duty to look after their beloved grandchildren.
There should be two sides to this, just as with everything else.
In principle, spending time with grandparents is wonderful for grandchildren, and a big blessing, particularly if everyone in the family is on good terms with one another. Let’s not forget the added bonus of saving on childcare costs.
But then, is it not fair to consider that grandparents are already done with their parenting phase and might want to indulge in their own hobbies without being weighed down by the pressure of childcare? It is a huge time commitment, involving a tremendous amount of energy and emotional investment, not to mention the fatigue that invariably follows.
Quite a few grandparents are bullied into this situation, with emotional blackmail—sometimes explicit and guilting them into “doing the right thing”—and that’s not fair.
From the parents’ point of view, they look for these:
- the children’s safety—chances of this are highest with grandparents
- the children are well looked after—grandparents invariably dote on their grandchildren
- the children should be with someone trustworthy—grandparents certainly fit that bill
And as I said earlier, childcare costs, which can be exorbitant, can be saved, allowing the mom to return to work in peace.
Of course, grandparents want to do all they can for their family, but this is justified only when this is voluntary. In her book, “Always a Parent – Managing our longest relationship” the author Gauri Dange devotes an entire chapter to this situation. She says, “Whether the issue is “too interfering” or “doing too little”, both sets of parents, older and younger, must refrain from assuming or presuming anything. It makes sense to have frank discussions about mutual expectations, as well as limitations”
To maintain a healthy connection, and make the whole experience smooth for all concerned, I feel these are some good points to keep in mind:
- Some grandparents look forward to being full time babysitters, and some may not. Parents must respect this. Some grandparents enjoy the involvement, but prefer to do so on their own terms, with the freedom to go after their own interests and decide whether they want to help—or not.
- Any conflict in parenting approaches must be identified—and this works both ways. It is only fair that grandparents respect their own children’s parenting ideas. When this does not happen, it can upset the relationship. In our case, we had clear boundaries—there were certain things my Mom would simply not interfere in.
- What happens if grandparents are limited in their mobility because they have health issues? They will find it tough to keep up with hyperactive children. This must be viewed compassionately.
- Perhaps the most important thing of all is being open with communication—and not take each other for granted. It is best to agree on certain rules from the start—things like when the children should eat/sleep—how long they can watch TV and a list of dos and don’ts, and a discussion on safety issues.
- And once an agreement is reached, the parents must trust the grandparents’ judgment without breathing down their neck constantly. They must let go. If there are deviations, as long as they are minor, that’s okay. There’s no need to hurt them or make them feel resentful.
- If there are any unique issues with the child’s temperament/moods, and there are special ways to tackle them, these must be shared with the grandparents. It is also a good idea to let them know about their child’s fears, if any, their favorite toys and things like that, to make it easier. Medications, emergency contact information and other critical stuff must be readily available to avoid grandparents panicking, looking for them.
- Most of all, parents must appreciate the value that grandparents to the family equation. Recognize that grandparents want to be grandparents, not parents! The sad thing is, when they are taken for granted and taken advantage of, they feel too bad to speak up—so it is good to be alert to this.
In the end, the question of whether grandparents are becoming babysitters: has no right or wrong answer, as it is entirely dependent on the family and its unique situation.
Few things are more wonderful than a family where every member respects and loves one another without feeling pressurized.
What is your take?
Do you think grandparents are becoming babysitters?