Granny and grandad are taken for granted by the State
Published 14/04/2015 | 02:30
Grandparents are viewed as the ideal solution to childcare needs, especially in countries - such as Ireland - that have low provision of formal childcare.
Grannies and grandads can surely spare the time to help their hard-pressed children struggling with childcare.
Running after the little ones appears like a win-win situation for everyone: the parents get a trusted childminder; the children benefit from grandparents' positive influence; and, of course, this good news story means massive savings to the public purse.
What's wrong with the happy picture of family members helping each other and sparing others from footing childcare costs?
First, not all costs are direct, like the thousands of euro that families who use formal childcare fork out. Costs can also come in the form of poor health outcomes - a recent Finnish study showing that young children whose primary minder is a grandmother are more likely to be overweight.
Second, this 'win-win' situation may not always be perceived as such by grandparents themselves; many end up providing grandchild care out of sympathy towards their children, even where it would not be their own preference.
Most grandparents want to put some limits to the time they spend on grandchild care, but the higher educated among them are in a better position to do so.
One of the grandparents interviewed recently, a retired lawyer, expressed delight both at being able to spend time with his grandchildren over a Sunday lunch, and being able to say afterwards, "Well, that's grand, time to leave now".
The heaviest inputs into grandchild care are made by the grandparents with the fewest resources in terms of money, education and health, rendering the use of this 'free' resource inequitable and even exploitative.
A grandmother from a working class community commented: "I thought at this stage in my life it would be time for me to do things that I want to do but it hasn't worked out that way because … I am very tied with grandchildren."
New findings from Tilda indicate that these grandparents who provide high levels of childcare experience significantly more depressive symptoms.
The reality is that grandparents, like all carers, are taken for granted - not so much by their adult children, who often have no other option due to the astronomical cost of creches and qualified childminders - but rather by the State.
As long as grandparents are doing the job 'for free', the State can avoid the very significant additional investment that good-quality childcare and after-school care involves.
And so we have two very different worlds of grandparent in today's Ireland: the better-off families with the quality time spent with grandchildren, largely when it suits the grandparents; and the families where grandparents are over-stretched, stressed out, and in some cases developing depressive symptoms due to their generosity in giving the 'free resource' of their time and energy.
Virpi Timonen is a professor at the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity