Rule 14: Nobody needs a ‘Grandparents’ Charter’

The army of unpaid conscripts who look after their grandkids is growing – but they don’t need a rulebook to manage their childcare affairs.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

My first thought upon hearing that a group of put-upon wrinklies were launching a ‘Grandparents’ Charter’ to ‘help grandparents and parents iron out the various issues surrounding childcare arrangements’ was: what took them so long? (1)

I am continually struck by the amount of time and energy demanded of grandparents in providing regular childcare when the parents are at work: a semi-formal, intensive commitment of two or three days a week, far removed from the drop-the-kids-off-for-a-couple-of-hours-every-now-and-then situation that one imagines prevailed in the past, when women with pre-school kids didn’t work and the grannies would pop round for tea.

In 2008, according to research carried out for Saga Insurance, grandparents spend ‘on average over 17 hours a month and £20 per day looking after grandchildren’, while ‘almost one in five spend the equivalent of a week’s full-time employment per month caring for grandchildren’ (2). As Saga suggests, the high cost of childcare in the UK means that parents often have little choice but to seek free help from their parents, who in turn feel compelled to provide it.

Given the growth of this army of unpaid conscripts, it is little wonder that Lorna Edwards, the founder of the Grannynet website and the Grandparents’ Charter, sees the need to start setting some ground rules and demanding some rights. ‘Childcare expectations are the most difficult issue for grandparents to refuse, because the issue is bound up with a sense of desire, duty, guilt and responsibility’, explains Edwards, who cares regularly for two sets of grandchildren. ‘Children can end up pushing it, asking for the sacrifice of increasingly more commitment and time until grandparents end up feeling abused.’ (3)

But hold on a minute. Sacrifice? Abused? This seems a rather strong choice of phrase for describing a process of familial obligation and support – and not a phrase that is echoed by many others. While there is little doubt that grandparents can find regular childcare responsibilities a drain on their free time and energy, by and large they are willing to take the commitment on. Of the top five reasons why grandparents act as childminders that were uncovered by the Saga research, the highest ranking was ‘enjoyment’ (36 per cent), followed by the belief that children should be looked after by family instead of strangers (18 per cent). Plugging the gap brought by parents’ inability to afford childcare costs came in fourth place, at seven per cent.

Even the notion that grandparents should receive more recognition for their caring duties, often proposed in the form of a state-funded benefit, is not necessarily something that all grandparents would welcome. ‘It would over-formalise any arrangements made, and once the government becomes involved in any part of children’s lives it seems to wish to regulate it too much. I don’t fancy being inspected!’ reads one post on the Grannynet website. ‘The government will always expect something in return for giving something out, especially if it’s spondoolies’, reads another – although this granny does go on to say: ‘I wouldn’t want to have to be inspected just to receive a monetary supplement but would do so if it helped us all out financially.’

The idea that you are not a formal childcarer, who has to be paid, regulated and licensed in the way that nursery nurses and nannies are, seems to be worn as a badge of pride by many nans-who-nanny. This speaks to a certain suspicion about paid childcare (which, as a big fan of nurseries and those who work in them, I don’t share) and a suspicion of what happens when the state gets involved (which, as readers of this column will know, I do share).

In my view, it would be better for everybody concerned – parents, grandparents, children – if there were enough good, affordable formal childcare available for people to make unfettered choices about which caring arrangement they preferred. But the solution to the exploited-grandparents dilemma is clearly not to try to formalise that particular and precious relationship, through government subsidies, inspection regimes or ‘Grandparents’ Charters’ that try to draw up one rule book for many quite different families.

In many ways, the issue about nans-who-nanny seems to be less about the practical burden of childcare than about a more subtle cultural tension, to do with grandparents’ uncertainty about their relationship with their children and the norms of modern childcare. In today’s uptight parenting culture, anecdotal evidence abounds about the spats (if not full-blown rows) that surface between grandparents and their grown-up children about what food to give the grandkids, what amount of TV is appropriate, and how much independence the grandchildren should be allowed. Childcare of school-age children no longer simply means being at home while the kids amuse themselves outside, but is a far more intensive, protective endeavour. As Irene Cordingley of the Grandparents’ Association has commented:

‘I only needed my mother to help out during the summer holidays. Most of the time, my daughter was roaming around the streets, playing with her friends. Now parents work full time but feel their kids need constant observation and entertainment. If they can’t afford to pay for that, who else can provide it apart from a grandparent?’ (4)

Then there is a side of the problem that is about grandparents themselves: their idea about their own lives and personal identity. Today’s grandparents, after all, are from a generation expecting to retire as dual-income families on final-salary pension schemes with several years of life expectancy ahead; whose dreams of pursuing life, liberty and happiness extended (not unreasonably) beyond the working years and into a retirement of travel, sport, culture and high jinks. To be plunged from the office into a half-a-week, every-week commitment of looking after demanding toddlers while your own daughter re-enters the rat race is a rather rude awakening to a more prosaic reality.

Janet Bostock, a 63-year-old ‘Both-End Carer’ who divides her time between looking after young grandchildren and her own and her husband’s elderly mothers, told The Times (London): ‘Our family responsibilities are greater now than ever before. You think you’ve retired – well, you must be joking. I hoped that I would be able to play a lot more tennis after retiring; in fact I am playing less than when I was working.’ (5) Bostock says that looking after the grandchildren is a ‘choice’ and that she doesn’t begrudge caring for her mother and mother-in-law, but that she nonetheless feels ‘squeezed from all sides’.

And, presumably, she and others feel that they are presiding over lives that are out of their control. The fantasies of a footloose and fancy-free retirement spent pursuing the hobbies and interests you never had time to follow at work quickly dissipate, as the time is gobbled up caring for those too old or young to care for themselves. As for the sense of personal identity so precious to the baby-boomer generation – to take on the identity of somebody’s grandparent or carer, after a lifetime of being a teacher, nurse, office worker, executive, is not an easy call.

This kind of latter-life identity crisis is the subject of Anne Tyler’s excellent novel, Back When We Were Grown-Ups (6). The protagonist, Rebecca (known to everyone but herself as Beck), is approaching her mid-fifties with three grown-up step-daughters, one grown-up daughter, a horde of grandchildren and an uncle-in-law approaching his hundredth birthday. Widowed after a mere six years of marriage, she has spent her life raising her husband’s children and making a living by hosting parties in the family home. As Rebecca looks back, she wonders what would have happened if she had taken a different course in life: marrying her college sweetheart rather than the man who swept her off her feet, and living an earnest, academic life rather than one in which it is taken for granted that she will look after everybody else. At one point Rebecca tries to have a conversation with her seven-year-old granddaughter that is, for once, about herself:

‘“I had this really weird dream last night”, Rebecca told Merrie. (And why was it she just then thought of it?) “I dreamed I was on a train with my teenaged son.”

‘All Merrie said to this was, “We went on a train. Me and Emmy and Mama. We went to Washington last week. But Danny stayed at home because it was only us girls.”

‘So Rebecca changed to her grandma voice and said, “Oh, what fun! What did you see? Tell me all about it!”

‘She loved these children, every last one of them. They had added to her life more than she could have imagined. But sometimes it was very tiring to have to speak in her grandma voice.’

The available research suggests that today’s grandparents love their grandchildren and appreciate what they have added to their lives – but that they, too, are frustrated by the limitations of the ‘grandma voice’. If there is an answer to the conundrum, it is not to ditch the childcare or to try to regulate it through charters or guidelines, but to work towards a more grown-up culture in which grandparents can be people, too. With all that has changed, one grandparenting cliché remains true: You can always hand the kids back at the end of the day.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the new website, Parents With Attitude. Email Jennie {encode=”mailto:jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) Grandparents’ Charter, Grannynet

(2) Saga Babysitters, Saga press release, 1 April 2008

3) Grandparents demand their charter of rights, Observer, 24 August 2008

(4) Grandparents demand their charter of rights, Observer, 24 August 2008

(5) Meet the supergrandparents, The Times (London), 26 August 2008

(6) Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler. Chatto & Windus, 2001; p49

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics