Thursday 26 April 2018

Are we exploiting our grandparents? Three Irish Grannies share their experiences

A new TILDA study reveals that providing more than 60 hours of childcare a month can have an impact on the health of grandparents

Good balance: Stephanie Sadlier with her two grandchildren Nathan (7) and Elaine (5) who she looks after on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Good balance: Stephanie Sadlier with her two grandchildren Nathan (7) and Elaine (5) who she looks after on Mondays and Wednesdays.
'Back up': Delores Ferris with her six-year-old grandson Ethan.
Celia Imrie
Bernedette Byrne

Chrissie Russell

There are peals of baby laughter and fond exclamations of "Ah, just one more", coming from my kitchen where granny and granddad are in full child-minding mode.

Sitting at my laptop, part of me feels sad that I'm missing whatever is causing such merriment, while another part of me suspects that my eight-month-old almost definitely shouldn't be having "just one more" of whatever's on offer out there. It's true - when grandparents enter a room, discipline flies out the window.

But mostly, I'm just grateful, because if it wasn't for the crèche of granny and granddad, then I wouldn't be able to work.

I am one of the cohort of needy offspring lambasted last week by actress Celia Imrie for relying on my parents for free childcare on tap.

According to the Best Exotic Marigold Star (62), many of her 60-something peers are "exhausted" and feel "put-upon" because their adult children are dependent on them for daycare.

The speech sent a shiver of guilt through me, and no doubt thousands of others, because I'm by no means alone in my childcare arrangements.

A new report due for release this June by TILDA (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing) reveals that 60pc of grandparents have looked after their grandchildren in the past month.

For those 60pc providing childcare, 15pc did so for more than 60 hours per month. When broken down by age, it was revealed that 70pc of under-65s and half of over-65s are looking after their grandchildren.

Another recent poll conducted by tells a similar story. It found that 48pc of working mothers lean on the generosity of grandparents and other family members to bridge the childcare gap and 90pc of mums rely on extended family to manage half-terms, Easter and Christmas.

Both studies show it's a trend on the rise. In 2007, the CSO reported just 9pc of children as being cared for by non-paid relatives, while a further report, 'Growing Up' in Ireland by Dr Sinead McNally, put the figure at 12pc - when looking at the daycare arrangements of nine-month-olds in 2008/2009.

But, worryingly, it might be having an impact on grandparents' health. The new data from TILDA found that grandparents who provided 60-plus hours of childcare a month experienced significantly more depressive symptoms.

The effect was moderated by how much they also participated in social and leisure activities, with those in the lower-educational-attainment group more likely to experience depressive symptoms.

"Our findings contradict the perception of grandparents as a homogeneous group, with uniform levels of ability and interest in providing grandchild care," explains author of the report and Epidemiology Research Fellow Christine McGarrigle.

"[They] support the hypothesis that expectation and choice may play a part in how a grandparent responds to the activity of grandchild care."

Essentially, grandparents who have their own social lives and opt to help out, rather than feeling obligated by financial considerations, fare better.

The problem is many families don't feel they have that option of choice. Ireland now ranks second-highest in the world and highest in the EU (according to the OECD) when it comes to childcare costs and inevitably this has some bearing on deciding who minds the baby.

"Grandparents are much more likely to be the main childcare providers for infants of mothers who are younger, have lower levels of education and lower levels of income," says Dr McNally.

"These findings further support previous research which has indicated a strong economic component to choice of grandparental childcare, at least in Ireland."

There are other factors which have made the crèche of granny and granddad a relatively modern phenomenon, such as increased labour force participation by Irish women and the fact that today's grandparents are in better health and have a longer life expectancy than their own parents.

It puts today's 60-somethings in a unique and sometimes difficult position.

"On the plus side, many of us are living longer, healthier lives which has changed the quality of our interactions with our grandchildren," says Michael Foley, head of evaluation and public affairs at Age and Opportunity.

"But we can also find ourselves in 'the sandwich generation' providing care, and sometime financial support, too, for both our parents and children.

"At Age and Opportunity we believe that as we age, we should be able to continue to make our own choices and yet we often hear stories of people who feel that they can't say no when asked to mind grandchildren.

"As hard as it might be, it's important to be assertive and as clear as you can be, in a positive way, about how often you would like to see your grandchildren."

Laura Haugh, from, agrees that communication is key to making the relationship work. "The advice we would give to both parents and grandparents is to respect the boundaries on both sides.

"It's a good idea to sit down and outline some ground rules, such as when the childcare duties start and end, the number of hours, pay and whether or not expenses will be covered," says Laura.

"It's important for parents to remember that, although grandparents love spending time with their grandchildren, really their time spent together should be seen as a joy instead of a chore."

 It's a joy... but it can be mentally and physically demanding

Dublin grandmother Stephanie Sadlier looks after seven-year-old Nathan and five-year-old Elaine on Mondays and Wednesdays.

"It's a joy," she says, "But it can be mentally and physically demanding.

"We went to Brittas Bay recently and worried the whole time about losing them. And my son was on the phone asking if they had sunscreen on or were they wearing their hats - I honestly think I feel more responsible with them than I did with my own.

"The way we have it is nice because there's balance. I love having a close relationship with the children but it's also nice to wake up on Thursday and know I've four days to myself.

"I like my free time and I've my days for golf, tennis and the gym but my son and daughter-in-law are very mindful of that and appreciative of what we do. They know my husband and I have an active social life, we're not just sitting waiting for the children to call."

I told my son that I couldn't commit to minding her

Grandmother-of-five Dolores Ferris from Dublin put her foot down when it came to providing full-time childcare.

She explains: "When my son had his eldest, he asked me if I'd mind her when his wife went back to work and I said 'no'. He said, 'but we'd really like you to' and I said 'no'. Then he said 'we don't want to leave her with strangers' and I said 'no'.

"I had retired and my health hadn't been great and I told him I didn't know from day-to-day how I'd feel and couldn't commit to minding her and putting my health under pressure.

"I think he was a bit miffed initially but once he got over the shock he saw where I was coming from.

"I'm more than happy to be a back-up. If my son has to do something and asks me what days I'm free, then I'll gladly help out.

"It's a joy to look after my grandchildren because it's my choice, I'm not obligated.

"And I wouldn't want to be paid - I think that would really change the dynamic of our relationship.

"The only one I'll drop everything for is my daughter's oldest boy, Shane, who's autistic. I know you're not supposed to have favourites but he's the apple of my eye."

 I'm more free with my grandkids, I see it as a gift...

"We call ourselves the Friday gang," says Bernadette. "A while back we went to the zoo and had a great time roaring at the lions. I think I'm more free with the grandchildren than I was with my own, I like letting them get on and experience things and I'm not as bothered by what other people think.

"In a way, I think I get more out of it. With our three girls I regret rushing along and not taking the time to enjoy things.

"I know people who say 'I'm not signing up for babysitting', but I see it as a gift. In September the boys will all start school and I'll miss them."

Irish Independent

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