Your children could put Granny in an early grave
Childcare demands on grandparents are costing them their health, says Sarah Caden, and upsetting the natural order
Some years ago, I heard psychologist Maureen Gaffney on the radio talking about grandparents. Her top tip for parents was that they must never speak ill of the grandparents to the children or in their earshot. This, she advised, would upset the delicate equilibrium.
For one thing, she explained, the children would be horrified, and defensive of their grandparents, whom they cannot be expected to see as their parents see them. But further, it would upset the almost magical relationship children have with their grandparents, traditionally free of the pressures of the parent-child relationship. Traditionally, that is, but not if, as has become the case in Ireland, increasing numbers of grandparents are semi-raising their grandchildren.
Last week, Tilda (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing in Ireland), based in Trinity College reported that grandparents providing more than 60 hours of childcare per month to their adult children were at greater risk of depression. Sixty hours a month. That's not dangling a babba on your knee and telling them stories about the old days. That's school drop-offs, feeding, naps, school pick-ups and probably homework, too. That's parenting. And that's asking too much.
Among the grandparents Tilda canvassed for last week's research, 60pc had minded their grandchildren for some time in the previous month. Fine, that could be a spot of babysitting, or even a sleepover, the "I love them, but I love when they go home" stuff.
Out of that 60pc, however, one in five gave more than 60 hours care in the previous month. And, Tilda found, that cohort reported ill effects on their health as result, and a higher incidence of depression. Who's surprised by that? Think how many parents feel overwhelmed by their kids. Then add age and diminished energy and, well, a sense that you thought your working and child-rearing days were done, and you've got a soul-destroying mix right there.
So none of this is surprising, but it is hard to hear. For everyone involved. Maybe it's an Irish thing of fearing that if we raise a tricky topic, the whole thing will blow up in our faces. But talking about how retirement has become about child-rearing is something we have failed to do.
Age Action Ireland has reported in the past that grandparents contact them for advice on how to say no to their adult children when they push the childcare demands too far. They struggle with buttoning their lip, too, when they can't reprimand kids that they mind on a daily basis, or adult kids whose parenting is coming up short. Tilda has said that a huge responsibility lies with the "middle generation" - today's parents - for opening up the channels of communication so that their parents don't feel overburdened or exploited, but that's easier said than done.
After all, if you need to go to work and you can't afford the cost of professional childcare, you're not going to ask your mother if she'd really mind taking care of her grandchildren. Because what if she says no? Instead, what most people do is lay out the desperation of their situation to their parents who, very often, feel they just can't say no. And no one feels quite right about it, but at least the kids are alright.
In 2011, another report from Tilda found that 47pc of Irish grandparents aged over 50 provided childcare for their adult children. But of those aged between 65 and 74, this rose to 60pc. Basically, when the grandparents were retired and perceived to have nothing else to do, they were roped in. Of course, many grandparents love minding their grandchildren. And a lot of grandparents aren't involved and regret that, but what Tilda's results show has nothing to do with either. It's not the minding that's the matter, it's the being required to do it, being expected to do it. It's about finding, in a time of your life when you could have a bit of freedom, that you can have blessed little. And that's where resentment starts. And that's where depression blooms.
But the pressure on grandparents is only a by-product of the pressure on parents. And mothers, specifically. We live in a society where women are expected to work, and where, in many, many cases, they have to work far more hours than is family-friendly. There's the expectation - sure what did you get an education for and build a career for, just to waste it all when you had kids? And then there's the obligation - we need every penny we can get to keep this show on the road. And they're not mutually exclusive.
Many women who can choose professional childcare chalk down years of shelling out almost all of their salary on it, in the belief that when the kids are older, all will change. And many women rely on their own parents to mind the kids in order to ensure that they're not going out working for nothing. Not because they want to overburden their ageing parents, but because they have no choice.
Choice is at the centre of all of this. The choice to have a two-working-parent family. The choice of what to do with your kids when you go out to work. The choice of either minding your grandchildren or not. Currently, neither the older nor the middle generation has much of a choice. And the traditional, carefree, 'you're at your granny's' relationship between the old and the young is being destroyed.
And all of our futures rely on righting this. Because if retirement age continues to creep up, today's parents will find themselves roped into child-minding in their 80s.