The age of ‘the grands’.
You can’t miss them. Grandparents are everywhere: on the school run, in the playground, waiting in the doctor’s surgery, reading to children in school, manoeuvring buggies onto trains and buses, standing loyally in goal. As hands-on providers of childcare, “the grands” have never been more visible or more indispensable to working parents.
It’s a task force of willing recruits. From the moment you meet your child’s child for the first time, all previous notions of holding on to your old life slip away. Stealthily, a transition is made, a new kind of covenant entered into. Even grandparents who are still working themselves are sucked into the arrangement: once their first grandchild enters the world, they are part of the practical, emotional and financial support system that keeps working mothers working and provides a safety net for the whole family.
One in four grandparents make sacrifices to be able to give money to their families, helping to finance mortgages, buy clothes or pay for extra-curricular courses or school fees. Many reduce their own working hours to help out. They are the backstop in school holidays and an anchor in medical emergencies and family crises. The expectations, as well as the rewards, are greater than they have ever been.
It hasn’t always been this way. Not much more than a generation ago the grandparents sat affectionately on the periphery of the family. Not a lot was expected of them beyond evening babysitting duties and occasional days out. As family elders, dispensers of treats and wisdom, they were (and some still are) part of what Prof June Statham calls the “leisure and pleasure” ideal of grandparenthood, rather than the active “rescue and repair” reality that some grandparents face today.
But the role of grandparents is being totally rewritten. Today, they’re leant on so heavily that there’s a “forgotten army” of 78,000 grandparents bringing up their children’s children because of desperate family circumstances.
As Gillian Daniell, one of the grandparents interviewed below, recalls: “So many of my generation never had a grandfather, as they were killed in the First World War. My father was distantly lovely to my daughter, but still spent a lot of time in his armchair reading the newspaper. He didn’t quite know how to engage.
“On the other hand, my mother and my grandmother were wonderfully supportive, dropping everything to help out. In fact, both my daughter and I regarded our grandmas as best friends, particularly when we were teenagers.”
Grandmothers are still the main anchor – but new research by the charity Grandparents Plus shows that as grandfathers are living longer, healthier lives, they are becoming a bigger part of the family support system. Free from the ultimate responsibility of child rearing, these men can enjoy activities and mischiefs that they never had time for when their own children were young.
But everything is in the melting pot. As life expectancy increases, some of us will be grandparents for a third of our lives. Our revealing case studies show how harmonious that phase can be – but also where the pitfalls lie for multitasking grandparents and what it takes to keep the relationship in good heart.
‘I’m their first port of call’
Gillian Daniell, 69, artist and retired university lecturer
Two grandchildren: Kit, seven, and Iris, five. Gillian lives three miles away from her grandchildren in Hackney. She runs art projects in their school, volunteers in class to help with reading, pays for the grandchildren’s art courses, regularly babysits, and sometimes sleeps over.
“I feel I am lucky to live so close. Every time we meet we fall into each other’s arms. I live alone and touch is very important. I like the closeness when they snuggle up and ‘squidge’ me and I wish this would go on forever.
We amble along the road together after school, talking about everything and nothing at all. For grandparents, the pressure is off. We can just enjoy the connection. We like drawing and painting together. There is always something being done. When we are making cakes, we talk about all sorts of things. Conversations go wild, stories unfold between the three of us. It’s very special. We feel comfortable in each other’s company. Grandchildren take you as you are. I like that.
I love our ‘adventures’, whether it’s bus rides (always on the top deck) or climbing a tree in the park. The children sense this is our space. When we play football, I try to be a good goalie and not let them see how decrepit I am. Kit is so supportive of my attempts in goal. I also encourage them to find their own kinds of play, on their own, encouraging their curiosity, imagination and confidence.
I try to explain why it’s necessary to do something or not do something, to teach them the correct way to behave, to reason with them but always treat them with respect. It becomes almost an intuitive thing to keep to their parents’ rules.
Being with them makes me see life through their eyes, uncomplicated and sweet. Through our grandchildren, we see afresh things that we took for granted. We’re no longer jaded and disgruntled. Life is so much more fun.
Grandchildren expect unconditional love from their grandparents and that is what we happily give. Their parents expect support but they try to remember that we have our own lives and ambitions to fulfil before it’s too late. I’m trying to get my own practice together as an artist. They do understand – but the easiest thing in a crisis is to put your own work on hold.
The reality is that children are exhausting and we don’t have the energy we once had. For a year or two, it was full on: I was working, picking them up from nursery, cooking supper, bathing them and putting them to bed. I was so tired. Now we have a ‘production meeting’ on Sunday nights. My daughter and son-in-law work out what the children are doing, what their own work schedule will be (they are both freelance) and check if I’m free to fill in. I’m their first port of call. We have a system going and I try to stick to what has been agreed. We are a team. The older the children get, the easier it becomes.
We’ve had a drama or two along the way. When Iris was six weeks old, she caught meningitis. My daughter and son-in-law lived at the hospital until she was out of danger. I held the fort at home, making sure Kit was not affected. We did the usual things. I never transferred my anxiety to him. At times like that, grandparents are invaluable.
Our generation is privileged. We had free education and have good pensions. It feels natural to help our children financially, but many of my friends take the view that they should look after themselves.
Yes, our children sometimes take us for granted but we like it. Deep down, they are grateful. It is important that parents have time together so I’m glad to be able to babysit. I’m free – and better than any other babysitter.
If they had to move to another part of the country, I think I’d move with them.”
‘I was a steadying influence during divorce’
Sally Brown, 71, part-time client administrator with an international estate agent
Four grandsons: Jamie, 20, Ben, 18, and twins Nat and Louis, 14. Sally lives 90 miles from Jamie and Ben in Bristol, and 10 miles from the twins in Oxford. When the twins were younger, she reduced her working hours to take on day-care responsibility so that her solicitor daughter could retrain as a teacher.
“It’s the unbreakable bond: no matter what befalls the parents, grandparents remain a constant through thick and thin – forever reliable and less prone to outbursts of emotion and stress than parents. I feel my role as grandparent has been one of a steadying hand to the parents and a dependable but fun person to the grandchildren.
There is greater pressure today to be hands-on in a practical way – yet hands off when it comes to discipline. That balancing act is perhaps the most challenging aspect of grandparenting. We have to be accessible but not clinging or oppressive – and never demanding. We are also expected to be a safety net, both on the childcare and financial fronts.
Although my elder grandsons were in their late teens when their parents divorced, there is no doubt I was a steadying influence. They always seemed pleased when I was around. As the other grandmother was almost invisible during this difficult time, I felt I was an anchor.
I’ve been measured about offering my views on food, discipline and the children’s activities. Perhaps having two strong-minded daughters, I was aware that interference on those fronts would distance me from them and from the grandchildren. My policy was to wait until asked my opinion and then to reply honestly, but diplomatically. Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m not more interactive with the boys on a regular basis, but it is up to the parents to allow you to do this.
With your own child you are the ultimate decision-maker but you have to remember that with a grandchild you aren’t. There has to be complete trust that you would do nothing without consulting the parents.
When the twins had a meningitis scare, I was with my daughter when she discovered the rash. She looked at me unspeaking. I said: ‘Come on, we’re off to the hospital.’ But it wasn’t really my decision to go. I was just saying what her eyes were already telling me.
One of the most important moments was when my eldest grandson was placed in the arms of my second husband, who had never had children. He died before the others were born so I have played the grandmother part unsupported. I treasure every moment.”
‘Looking after the boys full-time was the right thing to do’
Janice Santos, 45, is a ‘kinship carer’
Bringing up her two grandchildren, Leo, three, and Logan, two, alongside her own children, Michael, 16, and Katie, 14, in a three-bedroom house in Newcastle. A complicated set of misfortunes means that her eldest daughter, Jenny, cannot look after them herself at the moment. Janice used to work full-time in the customer service department of a large store but now can only do occasional nights when her husband Rui, a HGV driver, can stand in. The couple are part of a pioneering support group for kinship carers in the North East, set up by the charity Grandparents Plus.
“I love being a mum and a grandma and I am lucky that we are strong and healthy enough to have the boys. They came to us in September 2015, six weeks after I’d had a hysterectomy, and at first we thought it was for a couple of days. We have no idea how long they will be here. It was very hard in the first few weeks. You are on a treadmill. It’s all go, go, go. Michael and Katie are fantastic. I’m also fortunate to have an understanding employer.
Kinship carers are a forgotten army. There is a lot of pressure on grandparents in our situation. We have a Child Arrangement Order, which means there are many lawyers and social workers to deal with, and so much paperwork. As a working family, we don’t get legal aid or support for childcare costs. It cost us £200 just to have the judge read our application. You dare not show any weakness in case it jeopardises the grandchildren being with you.
We are the best people to look after the boys but we don’t know what the future holds. We maintain contact with our daughter and I tell her everything I’m doing because the only way to survive is to be open and honest.
When we first went to the support group and had to share our story, we were in a state of shock. Until then, my husband and I didn’t realise how the other was feeling. It’s settling down now. We enjoy our lives, but in a different way. Everybody has adapted. We never doubted it was the right thing to do.”
- The charity Grandparents Plus offers support, especially for those raising grandchildren full-time. It campaigns for hands-on grandparents to have the right to flexible working and time off as their grandchildren grow up. org.uk; 0300 123 7015
‘We never get them to ourselves’
Rosie Banks*, 67, lives in Norfolk
Two of her grandchildren live more than 100 miles away in Buckinghamshire and the other two are 5,000 miles away in America. The English grandchildren visit every two or three months. She and her husband, Roger*, have 10 days with the US-based family each year.
“We miss the everyday getting-to-know the grandchildren. I would dearly like to be able to help in lots of little ways – learning to read, collection from school, regular days together. Their visits are quite rare, and therefore intense (so very tiring) and we have to fit in a lot. The children are always excited to come, which is good but it is not ideal or natural. I would far rather have regular time with them.
We want to be involved as far as we can and I get the feeling that our sons would like that, too. But there is a difference when your children are male. The mothers of grandchildren naturally turn to their parents (particularly their mothers) for everyday advice. Neither of my daughters-in‑law approach me for that and this does make the relationship with the children more cautious.
There must be many magic moments we miss and we feel sad that they are growing up without us
We do occasionally offer advice – but if met with disinterest then we don’t push it. We would never take matters into our own hands.
Though we can’t offer support with day-to-day practical things, we do help financially. We made it possible for the children to get onto the property ladder and we are really pleased that we could.”
Roger adds: “With the grandchildren so far away, we almost never have them to ourselves. We only ever see them with their parents, so it is hard to build up an individual relationship. There must be many magic moments we miss and we feel sad that they are growing up without us.
We envy our friends who have their grandchildren for, say, an afternoon. When they do come, it is full-on for a whole weekend and we are exhausted. We noticed from the mark on the doorjamb that one of our Buckinghamshire grandsons had grown three-quarters of an inch since his last visit. That must say something.”
The original article can be viewed here.