21st century grandparents

You love your grandchildren with all your heart. But can you have too much of a good thing?

You love your grandchildren with all your heart. But can you have too much of a good thing?

They’re the light of your life. The apples of your eye. The veritable angels you can spoil rotten with love and lollies before packing them back to their parents. But after a while, a few hours of babysitting becomes a few more hours – then a two-day-a-week obligation. And while the initial excitement of caring for the grandkids is a beautiful thing, once ‘Nanna’ begins to feel like the nanny and play starts to feel like work, being a grandparent can quickly lose its sheen (much as you dote on your offspring’s offspring.)

The question is, are baby boomers the new generation of baby sitters? And are parents taking advantage of the free childcare that their parents represent? According to an inquiry by National Seniors Australia, “Almost half of children aged three and under with working parents were cared for by their grandparents in 2013. Furthermore, National Seniors research shows that $5.54 billion is added to the Australian economy by unpaid carers and $1.26 billion from unpaid childcare provided by the over 50s.” It sounds like grandsploitation.

In a report by the Sydney Morning Herald, Robyn Barker, the best-selling author of Baby Love and The Mighty Toddler argued that a weekly child-minding commitment was too much to ask of grandparents – many of whom she suspects feel secretly annoyed by it.

“It’s a huge commitment when you’re doing even one day a week … we really don’t have the physical and emotional strength we had when we were raising our own children. A day with a toddler is a very long day,” she said. “There is resentment about what children expect their parents to do. Many grandparents present one face to their children and one face to their friends.''

There’s plenty to suggest that being a grandparent who’s regularly called upon for babysitting duties isn't all it’s cracked up to be. Research in 2013 by the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales found that families in which the grandparents raise the children are more likely to be financially disadvantaged. And a national inquiry into grandparents raising their grandchildren, conducted by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee has recommended that the Commonwealth and States do more to ease the emotional and financial hardships faced by grandparents raising their grandkids – including possible remuneration and respite care for the overworked.

Google ‘grandparent support group’ and you’ll find a variety of networks offering care and solidarity for exhausted grannies and gramps in every state in Australia. Looking after children is no short shrift. It’s what they refer to in the classics as hard yakka. But if you’re a grandparent, you’d be well aware – you’ve been there, done that. It’s not surprising that many aren’t overly keen to commit to regular kid-sitting.

This is something that Kelly Smith, 64, (who’s asked for her name to be changed) can relate to. “I absolutely love my two grandkids – I adore them,” she says. “I just don’t want to look after them regularly. It’s exhausting. I want to enjoy the time I have with them – not have to parent them. It may sound selfish but I’ve already done my child rearing and it’s my time now to do the things I want to do for myself.”

It’s a sentiment no doubt echoed by many. After all, even if you have all the time in the world, retirement has shed the thumb-twiddling connotations it once had. Not only are people living and working for longer, but today’s retirees aspire to lead full and busy lives – socialising, travelling, finding new interests and following their passions. Even so, recent studies have even found that an increasing number of Australians are spending their golden years caring for their grandkids rather than enjoying – and achieving their retirement goals. Being home with rambunctious toddlers all day (despite having all the love in the world for them) certainly seems like a more exhausting prospect than it is appealing.

But if you can find a balance – and you’re able to come to a mutual understanding with your own children about the amount of time you care for theirs, chances are the pitter-patter of little feet (or great clodhopping footsteps in the case of teens) will be music to your ears. Just so long as it’s more a Chopin Etude, than the theme tune from Jaws.