Having a grand day

I’M not asking for a fairy godmother, but a granny would be great. Since our much-loved and wanted little daughter arrived, I’ll admit I sometimes long for a cheerful, bustling grandmother to turn up and utter the magic words ‘I’ll take her for half an hour’ — just so I can have a long, leisurely shower or pop out to meet a friend for coffee.

But, for all practical purposes, the other half and I don’t have a granny between us. My mum passed away more than 20 years ago and his lives an ocean away, in Michigan. But she visited for a week last month and there were mornings when — having closed the sitting room door on Grandma and toddler playing happily within — hubby and I nearly danced our way to the kitchen, giddy at the prospect of an uninterrupted conversation while washing the breakfast dishes.

But when my mum-in-law mused that, if she lived nearby, she’d love to take her grand-daughter for one whole day a week, I had to change the subject — being teased with might-have-beens was just too much. !

Grannies stepping in to mind the kids has become quite routine. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing 2011 found nearly half of older people, aged 50-plus, are providing care to grandchildren. The trend got big during the boom. Hefty mortgages needed servicing with two incomes, leaving no extra cash for childcare. In Britain, childminding grandparents save working parents about £6.8bn in childcare costs. Here, a 2011 National Consumer Agency survey found parents forked out, on average, e191 a week on full-time childcare for a six-month-old baby and anywhere between e145 and e220 a week for a toddler — far beyond the reach of many couples who’ve seen wages slashed since the recession kicked in.

“When the economic crisis first set in, childminders were losing children because grandparents were stepping in and taking the kids to minimise the cost for parents struggling in the face of recession,” says Childminding Ireland manager Bernie Griffiths.

And who better than granny to the rescue? You trust her, so there’s instant peace of mind. And if she’s doing the minding in your home, you’ve rid yourself of the early morning headache of getting the kids up, dressed and fed before transporting them to a crèche.

“If the child’s being minded in its own home, there’s security in that and when the minder’s a family member there’s further security and love,” says Griffiths. “Also, grandparents’ mature attitude can have an easing effect on the child. Parents are full of worries and troubles. They wear too many hats. Grandparents can just be.”

Granny childminders represent a modern take on the extended family supports of the past and children can learn a lot from grandparents — like values and a sense of history — says Parentline CEO Rita O’Reilly. “Grandparents, having lived their lives, can tell stories — and tales too about the child’s parents, when they were young. Grandparents tend to be more patient because the job of minding is for a finite time and the child can feel more special than if they’re one of a group in a crèche.”

There’s an upside for Granny too. “There’s an unspoken element where childminding is a guaranteed way of regularly seeing your grandchild. If the child’s in commercial childcare, the family’s rushing from one thing to another and the grandparent’s lucky to see the child for a few hours at the weekend,” says Eamon Timmins, spokesperson for older people’s charity Age Action.

Catherine Wiley, Catholic Grandparents Association founder, has 10 grandchildren. She believes it’s very affirming for grandparents to have a childminding role. “They feel a lot closer to the children if they’re spending more time with them.”

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. You can clash over stuff like discipline, homework, food.

“Every generation thinks they can improve on parenting so these issues can be contentious,” says Timmins. “Grandparents will use the same ground rules as you grew up with. If you see these as seriously flawed, is it fair to say to them, ‘I know you have your beliefs but I want you to do differently with your grandchild’? I think it’s wrong to force grandparents to compromise their principles.”

When grandparents assert their own style and this is at odds with the parents’ approach, there can be a perception that the grandparent has too much of a say in the raising of the child, says Bernie Griffiths. The best thing is to set down markers at the beginning. “But you’re talking about agreement between family, rather than between two strangers, who might be more objective. There should be parameters where what the parent says goes, but if the grandparent is at home minding the child all day and they’re the one dealing with the problem, there has to be room for manoeuvre.

“If a parent sends a child to commercial childcare, they’re buying into that culture and setting and allowing the policies there to be applied. The same should apply when grandparents are doing the minding – always with the child’s interests at the centre.”

Rita O’Reilly agrees. “In their day, grandparents probably slapped their child. Nowadays, people don’t. I think this is something grandparents have to respect. But if the parent allows the child to scribble with marker on the wall at home, the grandparents are quite within their rights to say that’s not allowed in this house.”

There’s also the tricky issue of payment. Do you or don’t you? Is it offensive to offer? Is it exploitation if you don’t? “Some grandparents do it for next to nothing. Others do it for a salary. There are informal family arrangements,” says Eamon Timmins.

Grandparents certainly need to be remunerated when adult children are depending on them to raise kids, says Catherine Wiley, whose own children show their appreciation by “paying for a holiday or buying me something”.

Childminding grandparents provide a critical service to both parents and kids and parents really need to validate them for the job they’re doing, says Bernie Griffiths. “They should show tokens of that. But tokens shouldn’t replace payment, where payment can be done.”

But what if — as a granny — you don’t want to childmind the grandkids? Is it totally taboo to say no?

Grandparents should be in a position to say I can mind the child one day a week, three days, five days or not at all — and know that it won’t affect relationships, says Rita O’Reilly. “I know a grandparent who told all her children ‘please ask me to mind your children. I may say yes or I may say no. But please ask again and it might be a different answer’. Saying that well in advance really worked for her. And she loves minding her grandchildren — but equally she loves playing golf.”

Flagging ahead what you will or won’t do is important, says Eamon Timmins, who points out that grandparents may have a completely different set of plans for their retirement.

“Some may want to help raise grandchildren because they want to channel all that wisdom, but others might want to go back to university or travel. It’s important that people don’t feel under any pressure to childmind.”

And if you say yes to childminding, things need to be constantly reviewed. Looking after young children is physically demanding and, over a four or five-year period of childminding, grandparents’ personal and health circumstances may change.

“You have to be able to say I’m stopping or limiting this when it’s no longer working or taking a toll, but grandparents may be slow to do this,” says Eamon Timmins.

Visit www.ageaction.ie, ww.childminding.ie, www.catholicgrandparentsassociation.com and www.parentline.ie.


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