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As i sit and write this, my parents are downstairs looking after my two-year-old son. I can hear them, playing puzzles, dancing to music and more often than not, laughing uproariously together. It is the most delightful office background noise you could ask for.
I am just one of thousands of mothers in the UK depending on grandparents for their childcare. Around 50 per cent of working mums rely on their parents in this way when they go back to work after maternity leave. Almost one in five British grandmothers provide at least ten hours of care a week, according to an ongoing study being carried out across Europe by researchers at King’s College, London. This is hardly surprising. The economic downturn means more mothers are having to return to work to make ends meet and with the cost of childcare outstripping the rate of inflation, it is coming down to the grandparents to fill the gap.
“Grandparents see it as a chance to have another bite of the cherry, only now they have more time to enjoy it”
For me, this arrangement couldn’t be better. Even if I wasn’t working (I work one full day a week plus snatched periods during naptimes and in the evenings), I would still want my parents to have that one-on-one time with their grandson. I can see the bond between them growing and I don’t think it would be so strong if they weren’t feeding him, changing his nappies, coaxing him off for his nap and doing all the nitty-gritty caring side of things, as well as the park visits and playdough sessions. They know that his favourite sandwich is cream cheese and that he likes it made with bread minus any seeds, cut into squares and served alongside cucumber and grapes. Give him just the sandwich and he will get bored – variety is the key and they know that. I love that they know that.
And the benefits are not all one-sided. My parents take great pleasure in the special relationship that has developed from their close involvement in his life.
MORE TIME TO ENJOY
‘Stepping in and providing the childcare can be very rewarding and beneficial for grandparents,’ says Sarah Wellard, policy and research manager at the charity Grandparents Plus. ‘It can give a new dimension to their lives. They want to help out, although often not five days a week.’
The grandparents I have talked to about childcare see it as a chance to have another bite of the cherry, only now they have more time to enjoy it. Most of the grandmothers were stay-at-home mums when their children were young, but the added pressure of running the household left very little spare time to sit and enjoy their offspring. Many are also taking enormous delight in caring for a girl when they only had sons themselves, or vice versa, and the grandfathers, who were usually at work when their young family was growing, are now able to see and enjoy the small everyday developments that they missed in their own children. They might even tackle a nappy or two for the first time in their lives.
“Grandfathers are now able to see and enjoy the small everyday developments that they missed in their own children”
TOO MUCH PRESSURE
But is there too much pressure put on grandparents to help out? Wouldn’t they rather be spending their retirement gardening or strolling around National Trust properties than running after a toddler? After all, there is a reason why we become parents in our twenties and thirties. It is tiring.
‘There is certainly a pressure there, whether it be a spot of babysitting or a more permanent arrangement,’ says Charlotte Lloyd Owen from the online grandparenting forum Grannynet. ‘What is important is that grandparents do feel as though they can say no if they can’t or don’t want to offer the help, after all they have all pretty much “done their time” parenting the first time round.’ Half of grandparents looking after children under 16 are under the age of 65 themselves and yet to retire, meaning they have their own job to do, as well as the responsibilities of childcare and looking after other family members. ‘We have heard from many grandmothers on our forum who are “sandwich carers” looking after their elderly parents too,’ explains Charlotte. ‘It is a very common thing now as life expectancy is going up and care homes are expensive and offer poor levels of support. The added pressures are taking their toll on jobs, health and relationships; it is really tough for these women.’
ADVANTAGES FOR CHILDREN
Whatever the pros and cons of such an arrangement, the good news is that there are real advantages for children who are looked after by a relative. While formal childcare, like nurseries and childminders, can offer excellent care and prepare children for school, nothing quite beats keeping it in the family. ‘The benefits of being cared for by grandparents are that children are often looked after in their home, their carers love them hugely and in many cases they are likely to have more one-to-one, adult attention. Children also gain the benefits of learning from the added wisdom that the older generation brings,’ says Charlotte.
Research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Nuffield Foundation shows that, while the cost of childcare was a catalyst for parents asking their own parents to look after their children, their main motivation was the “trust” and “love” they know they will get from grandparents.
It might not be ideal that so many mothers are having to go back to work and pass on parental duties to their own parents, but this return of the tight-knit family network can surely be seen as a positive shift for society, and it looks like one that is set to grow. According to Grannynet, the amount of time grandparents spend giving care has almost doubled since 2009. This means that, of the 14m grandparents in the UK, nearly two thirds are providing childcare to grandchildren under the age of 16. Financially, this is a huge gift these grandmothers and grandfathers are giving – adding up to the equivalent of £4 billion worth of childcare every year. Only no money changes hands here, just love. And what can be better than that?
Linda Chambers, 58, and her husband Keith, 66, look after their two-year-old granddaughter Jessica every Tuesday and Thursday while their daughter Louise, 34, works full time in the police. Linda is a retired psychotherapist and Keith worked in computing.
Keith: ‘We have a lovely routine with Jessica. Louise usually drops her off around 8.15am and we have a whole porridge-eating ceremony to begin with. Jessica insists we have to feed all her animals too so we put bibs on everyone and pretend to give them all a share.
On Tuesdays I take her to the local playgroup while Linda gets lunch ready. It can feel very odd as I am usually surrounded by 30 young women, which is a bit of a change for me as I went to an all boys’ school and my work was an all-male environment.
We like to go to storytime on a Thursday at the library, or if the weather is good we sometimes go to the park or to the beach. It is funny as we are taking her to the same places we took Louise to 30 years before.
Jessica is very similar in temperament to her mother. She is a very happy, contented child and it is a complete joy spending time with her. I love having this tiny hand come out and grab mine to show me a feather or a duck she has seen. Being in a little child’s world is such a contrast to the lifestyle of being at work which was all rather grim. You never know what retirement is going to be like but this is the happiest time of my life. When Louise was little, I didn’t see her much and it was all very pressured. We might not be as free as others who are retired as we have to be available if Louise needs us but we don’t mind. The benefits are enormous, incomparable.’
Linda: ‘Louise loves her job but I think she would prefer to have the choice of whether she had to work or not. She was nine when I went back to work and I loved every minute of being with her but I think it is much more difficult for young families to live on less now.
I think formal childcare can work well but I love the opportunity for Jessica to be with her family and to give her the love and security in those first couple of years that sets them up for life. It is nice for us as we don’t have all the other stresses of being young parents, we can just put all our concentration on her when she comes. Louise always said she didn’t want to have children so when she had Jessica it was an unexpected treat. It is like having a second chance only this time we have learnt from being parents before.
Now Louise is on maternity leave as she is about to have another baby so Jessica is not coming to us at the moment. Although we are still seeing her, we love having her for the whole day and we find we are missing her terribly. We had thought we were looking forward to having a bit of break and more time to do other things but actually we feel quite bereft without her.’
Sheila Sims, 62, and her husband Dennis, 65, have three grandchildren from their 36-year-old daughter Joanne – Robyn who is 11 and twins Finlay and Rosie who are 8. They are both retired teachers.
Sheila: ‘Joanne is our only child but we never wanted just one so having grandchildren is wonderful. I enjoy them so much. It is especially nice to have a boy around as I always wanted to do boys’ things, like watch them play football, and now I can.
When Robyn was a baby, I was still working so I missed out a lot when she was young. I was so delighted when she was born but I was always too tired to really appreciate her so when the twins came along I took early retirement.
I would look after the children one day a week from quite a young age. I bought a double buggy and plunged myself into doing crafts with them. We did playdough, painting or making things with pasta – suddenly being a parent all came back to me. It isn’t any different from when Joanne was growing up.
I don’t find it tiring at all but exhilarating. It is a real tonic for me to look after them. When Joanne was little, my mum was living 150 miles away so I was on my own really. I didn’t return back to work until she was seven.
We were always there if Joanne needed us for anything and now they are at school we help out with picking them up if she needs us to and we have them in the holidays.
Dennis loves having them around. He plays hide and seek with them and chases them around the house. They always make us laugh so much. Sometimes he says he would prefer to have a quiet day on his own but he always ends up saying what a lovely day he has had with them.
It is like getting a second bite of the cherry. We are not ready to sit by the fire just yet – we still feel we have got a lot to give.’
Jean Williams, 69, and husband John, 67, look after their youngest son’s daughter, Jess, three days a week. Their son and daughter-in-law are currently working full-time setting up their own photographic business.
Jean: ‘We have looked after Jess from when she was ten months old. I think Louise, our daughter-in-law, would be happy to stay at home with her all the time but it isn’t possible at the moment as they are busy with work.
I would hate for Jess to be put into formal childcare – in my opinion it is much better for her to be with her family. Funnily enough I did go back to work after I had my first son. I was running my own employment agency and my partner wouldn’t have been able to cope on her own so I had to go back when he was just two weeks old. My mum was living with us and a lot of the work I could do from home, like the payroll, but I still had to go into the office three days a week. It was very hard.
This time with Jess is very special. Often we take her out for a walk with the dog, or she will go round to play with the next door neighbour’s little girl. Sometimes John comes with me but I am the one mostly looking after her. It is much more relaxed and I am able to do things at her pace. When my kids were little, I was always thinking ‘I’ve got to do this and that’, but now I can spend ten minutes looking at a leaf she has picked up from the pavement. As a grandmother you have more time to enjoy them and being able to watch them grow is wonderful.
I don’t really feel like I’ve retired as I was working as a photographer and then immediately started looking after Jess. She is so lovely and so good for us but it is hard work and it doesn’t give us much time for other things. John wanted us to have a two-week holiday but I said we could only go for one week because I felt we couldn’t leave them at this stage as it is so hard starting a new business. They always say, it’s their problem and if we want to go away we should so there is no pressure from them. I would look after her five days if I had to.
It has been a lovely opportunity spending time with Jess, especially as she is a girl and I had two boys. Having this little girl in the family is quite different. When I became a grandmother, it took me by surprise the absolute and instant love you have for your grandchild. It hits you between the eyes. You just take one look at them and think: ‘Wow’.’
Alice is a freelance journalist and mum. She specialises in parenting features and blogs at mumdownsouth.blogspot.co.uk. She also plays the violin and has her own string quartet.
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