Tuesday 22 October 2019

Grandparents - how do families cope without them?

Why does Tusla question the right of grandparents to rear a child? Sarah Carey thinks they might do a better job.

Love and care: The family unit is the rock on which society is built Stock photo: Depositphotos
Love and care: The family unit is the rock on which society is built Stock photo: Depositphotos

Sarah Carey

Technically my children have five grandparents. My parents, my husband's parents and my uncle - a bachelor farmer who is a daily part of our lives. Every day, but particularly since this wretched recession hit us, I bless my great fortune that they're there, holding us up in the bad days, making our lives joyful in the good ones.

When my mother-in-law slips me a few quid, when my father collects me from the bus or my mother babysits (again), I feel guilt and gratitude. Some days it's the difference between sinking and survival. When my uncle takes the boys around the fields to see a lamb being born it brings happiness into our hearts.

My husband has had to work abroad for a good part of the recession and while I like to melodramatically claim that I'm single-parenting, that's not true at all. It's a committee job.

I used to think I was unusually lucky but I attended a talk a few years ago from Tilda (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing) - the amazing longitudinal study of ageing in Ireland. This extraordinary project is tracking the lives of 8,000 older people in Ireland looking at their health, their social activities and their finances. With the recession hammering young families, they discovered that half of their cohort were helping out their grown-up children financially; either in hard cash, putting nappies into their shopping basket or providing dinner a few nights a week. I wondered about the other half. Were they not doing the same because their children didn't need it, or because they couldn't afford it?

With half of us depending on grandparents just to get by, I don't know how the other half copes.

Sometimes it feels like the natural order has been turned on its head. Or perhaps this is the natural order. The family unit is the rock on which society is built; in Ireland's case - constitutionally. This is exactly how it's supposed to be. Of course, that doesn't excuse exploitation. We all know someone who uses the grandparents for childcare when they're just not up to it. Or Sandwich Generation daughters worn out minding small children and elderly parents. Still, when I assured my mother one day that I'd take her in rather than see her go to a nursing home, her look of horror was something to behold. What joys lay ahead! But isn't that what it's all about? We look after each other!

So I'm always mystified when some people see it as a grave injustice that families have to step in when the cracks appear. There's an assumption that the State has the primary responsibility for caring for the young and the old; that children should be looked after full-time in crèches, preferably for free, while the elderly should be in nursing homes or nursed at home by care workers for a pittance. If the family has to do the caring, then somehow the State has failed them. Is that a welfare state or communism?

Then there's the payment for which family members who care for the old or sick qualify. If someone gives up a job to care for a parent or spouse, that's entirely fair. But the principle that the family has to be paid to care for each other, even if no income is foregone to do so, jars with me. It presumes that the family is doing the State a favour by taking a parent or child off their hands. Sure - I'd take the money; but the concept troubles me.

I've always had the other view. That in the best-case scenario we look after ourselves. In times of trouble, the family does the job. State help is for those without resources and support. In fact, taking State help if you don't need it is almost like stealing from those who do. The State is a safety net. It's the last resort - not the first.

And that's the reason why Tusla deciding to remove a child from its grandparents' care is troubling. I'm reluctant to make a specific judgement on this case because we don't know all the details. But Tusla has confirmed that, as a guiding principle, it's not best practice for a child to be reared where there is a 40-year age gap. Since my husband was in his 40s when our children were born, that would rule him out.

What's behind this principle?

Is it that old equals weak? Or once we outlive our economic usefulness to society we're seen as surplus to requirements? The old people I know are great. Sure, they get physically tired more quickly and can get sick. But if they're healthy, why are they seen as less capable or useful than the rest of us? In fact, I think we do far too much for our children, and if they had to step up to do a bit for tired grandparents it'd do them good.

Anyway, don't we all know that most often our parents have wisdom and experience far beyond our capabilities? They made all their mistakes on us. With the grandchildren they can finally get it right. The saddest cases are when marriage break-ups result in the denial of the grandparent-grandchild relationship.

The guiding principle that older is not better speaks to our obsession with the "normal" and the "average" and the "ideal". Normal is just a social concept that changes from one society to another, and one time to another. We condemn anything outside the norm as bad, even though it might simply mean different, but not necessarily worse. The older I get the more I realise how rigidly we judge those who fall, just the tiniest bit, outside acceptable social boundaries.

We judge people for having too many children, or none. Niamh Horan opened a hornet's nest with her comments on Brendan O'Connor's show last week, but there was a lot of truth in what she said. We judge women who don't have children to the point where I sometimes wonder if the heartache and money spent on fertility treatments comes from an innate love for a child or dogmatic social conditioning that life without children is a weird aberration.

So no, it's not usual for grandparents to rear a child when its parents are sick, absent, negligent or cruel. But that doesn't mean that their role should be open to challenge, unless they too are afflicted with some particular weakness or vulnerability. That's why I wondered why Tusla are involved in this case at all? If the child is happy, if the grandparents are happy, and this is only about age, and not some other problem, who decided that their fitness to do their natural job should be assessed in the first place?

Is this a side-effect of the Children's Referendum, or was this always the case? If we accept gay parents and single parents are okay, why not older parents? Is ageism the last acceptable prejudice? Ask anyone over 50 looking for a job and they'll tell you, yes it is.

Despite the national narrative of old people as weak, helpless, poor and vulnerable, most of the old people I know are strong, healthy, and doing well and have more backbone, stoicism and coping strategies than any millennial whingy weakling wittering on about their rights.

Grandparents should be seen as a natural and normal part of a child's life - an imperative, in fact. It's not a disaster to be raised by older parents. It could be the best thing that ever happened.

Sunday Independent

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