The dilemma I have a two-year-old granddaughter who my wife and I love dearly. My son and his partner have jobs and we agreed to care for her one day each week. We have found, to our shame, that we’ve come to dread these days. We both still work freelance and the arrangement frequently interferes with this and other activities. We try to make the day fun, but I find it an exhausting chore. I also feel resentful over silly things, such as the inability of the parents to provide a change of clothes or food, etc. To an extent we feel taken for granted. My instinct is to explain we underestimated the task and suggest a new arrangement. Or we could find a childminder to take our granddaughter for a couple of hours; that, of course, would require permission and would probably not be met with enthusiasm. We want to play a big part in our granddaughter’s life, but we’d be happier if this was done in circumstances more suited to our lifestyle. Is that really so bad or abnormal?
Mariella replies First, thank you – on behalf of every working parent blessed with healthy grandparents prepared to assist in lightening the load of childcare. I’d also like to thank you on behalf of the government, as I’m sure they haven’t been in touch. Our current incumbents are the latest in a long line of elected representatives who’ve failed to come up with proper funding for childcare and have instead taken advantage of grandparents to the tune of £22.5bn donated to our economy through their babysitting efforts. That’s just one of the astounding figures I came across recently while helping to launch a manifesto for Insuring Women’s Futures, a voluntary organisation highlighting mind-boggling statistics on how women, in particular, are impacted fiscally by their caring duties, among other financial obstacles.
My own parents-in-law made so many things possible for us that I am eternally in their debt. In their early 70s they took on not one but two toddlers with only 13 months between them, for weekends and even an entire week here and there, making work and precious downtime as a couple an available option.
It’s not just free babysitting that grandparents provide, but the reassurance that your kids are with adults who love them as much as you do. Friends without such back-up never fail to point out to me how lucky I’ve been. So, I hope you realise how valuable you grandparents are, particularly for the many for whom regular childcare remains – outrageously – an unaffordable luxury.
For your efforts you should be swept along on a sea of gratitude and certainly shouldn’t be feeling taken for granted or ashamed. Anyone who’s looked after a toddler knows it’s no easy task. If it weren’t for family members like you, so many parents (and women particularly) would be forced to leave their jobs or to work part-time, with a knock-on effect on family budgets, mental and physical wellbeing, and the economy as a whole.
We’re all familiar with the notion of the squeezed middle: those whose children are not yet independent and whose parents are becoming less so. Perhaps we don’t give enough thought to the likes of you and your wife, struggling to maintain a decent lifestyle while being forced back into a role you thought you’d long completed. That said, at present, you are both healthy and active, but as your child now reaches out to you for assistance, one day you may be the ones needing their support. Don’t bite the hand you may need to ask to feed you.
You are under no obligation to take on this onerous duty. But time moves on at speed and very soon these days of exhaustive effort on the caring front will be far behind you. In that not-distant future, you’ll hopefully be rewarded for today’s efforts by a rich bond with your maturing granddaughter and be integral to her life, rather than simply being distant members of her extended family. Your indignation does seem particularly raw. Is the issue less about caring for your grandchild and more about the absence of gratitude? I’m sensing the latter and wondering if you need to lay down some guidelines.
Obviously, the answer is to talk and agree a way forward that works better for you. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. For all the reasons I’ve given I’d be tempted to reach a compromise. The suggestion of a two-hour childcare session could work, though hardly seems worth the reverberations it may cause. If a whole day is too much for you, why not instead offer two halves, which you won’t find so onerous and still reduces their childcare costs?
Most importantly, I think you need to reset expectations and feel no compunction in asking for the practical things that would make the task easier, including support on the basics you mention. Being taken for granted is never pleasant, but neither is it worth going to war over. You are free to do as you like with your time, but don’t forget that, even in terms of self-interest, those in need today may well be your saviours further down the line.
If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1