Grandparents on Raising Grandchildren in Today’s World
It took one look at the ultrasound of their grandchild in utero for Jan Paul and her husband Jerry to make the decision to move. She immediately began looking at properties in Denver, near where her son and daughter-in-law lived, while closing down her landscaping business. At the age of 63, she decided to leave her familiar city and comfort zone to find a new unfamiliar home near her granddaughter.
As a cancer survivor, Paul says that playing an active role in her granddaughter’s life has made her feel optimistic about the future. “She's just kind of the bright spot in our lives,” she says.
That said, a lot has changed in the world of parenting since Paul, now 66, first raised her children. Here’s insight into how raising grandchildren in today’s world compares to parenting years ago.
A Growing Trend
Paul was originally inspired to make the move after her friend packed up her life in St. Louis to move closer to her grandchildren in San Francisco. But these two certainly aren’t the only grandparents raising their grandchildren.
What AARP dubbed “The Granny Nanny Phenomenon” in 2009 has only gained in popularity, especially as childcare costs increase. And in 2012, about 16 percent of grandparents reported providing daycare services to at least one grandchild, according to a report from AARP.
“I have a lot of friends who have done this — some that have moved for their grandchildren, and others who are just taking care of them two or three days a week,” says Paul. “I think it's kind of a trend, and it wasn't back in my day. My parents and in-laws were available to babysit on occasion, like if our kids were sick or something. I didn't know any grandparents who were taking care of their grandkids on a regular basis.”
A Chance to Do It Over Again
Paul is a retired journalist. She was only the second woman in her newsroom to have a child; she worked nights, enabling her to be present for playgroups and day activities when her kids were young. But she still wishes she could have been more involved.
“Once they started school, then I was kind of a workaholic mom, and I knew I would regret that someday,” says Paul. “So, now I feel like this is my chance to do it over and to be much more central to my granddaughter's life.”
Times have changed, and so has how we raise children. Some new parents are now sending their parents back to school to make sure they are equipped with handling everything baby.
Marilyn Swarts, a clinical nurse, designed the grandparent program (GP) at Stanford Children’s Health and has been teaching the seminar for 14 years. She says that both new parents who are very active in parent classes — which help the new family learn how to care for their child — as well as a growing number of eager grandparents are what makes the class so popular.
Parent Guilt and the Pinterest Effect
Paul says she was one of the first wave of women in her community who decided to work, and there was a lot of guilt surrounding her decision. It was a new choice, compared to staying at home with the kids. But she now worries that social media pushes an unrealistic aim for perfection in which women are working full-time and then taking on all of childcare — and doing both flawlessly.
“It was very much a juggling act to try to manage working and being attentive to our kids,” says Paul. “But I think there is added guilt now because of social media. I've heard people talk about the Pinterest effect, in which mothers will post pictures of these grandiose birthday parties, and then the other mothers who don't do the grandiose birthday parties are feeling, ‘I’m not as good.’”
The Good and Bad of Technology
Video chat and social media have helped reduce the distance between family members hoping to stay connected with their grandkids. But Swarts says grandparents need to be careful not to share too much.
“In GP class, we discuss that it’s the parents’ choice as to how their baby’s arrival is announced and to ask how the grandparents can share [photos] with their friends,” says Swarts.
One of the tough aspects of modern parenting is the ongoing debate over how much screen time is too much. But this isn’t necessarily a new argument. Paul says parents of her generation also worried about screen time, but screens weren’t as readily available as they are today.
“We worried a little bit about how much television time our kids got. But now it's screen time, and they're spending time on the phones, on the iPads, tablets, computers and TV,” says Paul. “It's very tempting because a lot of the programming is so wonderful … but still it takes time away from interpersonal connections.”
Let New Parents Learn to Be Parents
Paul attended two classes at a local hospital to learn about modern child safety techniques, infant CPR and the necessary vaccines she will need in order to care for a newborn. The class also focuses on limiting family interference and letting the new parents learn to be parents.
Just because participants have raised children themselves doesn’t mean those children will want to do everything exactly the same way. “The main thing is I'm not the mother, and I don't express my opinion unless asked,” says Paul.
Grandfathers Are Also Stepping Up
Swarts adds that, over the years, she has noticed grandfathers expressing a lot of enthusiasm during her classes, a clear sign of how generations are changing. “If [raising children] was the mother’s role, dads were not as involved in the care,” says Swarts.
She says the grandfathers who weren’t as involved when their children were growing up are the ones who want to absorb as much as possible. “Things like diaper-changing and swaddling, grandfathers are fascinated with this,” says Swarts.
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 1965, fathers spent an average of 2.5 hours per week caring for their children. In 2016, that number nearly tripled, with dads reporting spending eight hours a week with their kids.
The Economics of Childcare
Swarts says that it’s becoming very common for grandparents to be tapped for childcare in order to alleviate the financial pressure of outsourcing that care.
According to a recent poll of 1,858 men and women ages 20 to 45, conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times, 64 percent of respondents said high childcare costs were a factor in why they are having fewer children. The survey also showed that 31 percent weren’t having children altogether because they don’t think they can afford childcare.
“My understanding of childcare now is that it's outrageously expensive, so I'm really glad to be able to lessen that for my kids … and to be able to spend that quality time with my granddaughter,” says Paul.
Granny Nanny: Choice vs. Necessity
The decision to take on care of grandchildren (full-time or part-time) can be a matter of choice or of socioeconomic necessity. According to the 2012 poll conducted by AARP, of the grandparents who provided daycare, around 20 percent said they provided daycare because the parents couldn’t handle childcare costs.
And the majority of the grandparents surveyed said they help offset the cost of daycare for one or two grandkids. In the case of Jan and Jerry Paul, they chose to retire a little earlier than was financially ideal, but have no regrets.
The Perks of Gran-Nannying
For some new parents, grandparents are quickly moving from being on-demand or backup help to primarily providing childcare. But unlike with their own children, grandparents are freed from making the tough decisions and doing the heavy lifting of parenting.
“The difference between parenting and grandparenting is that I don't have the same heavy responsibility that parents have, of making sure they are getting a quality education, making sure they are healthy, and they're eating the right foods and they're sleeping on the right schedules and all that,” says Paul. “My time is just magic with her.”
Keeping the Family Connection
Both of Paul’s children moved out of town after college, and she missed the simple things like cooking for her family and eating a meal together. “I didn't have my children with me for about 12 years, and now I've got this family unit … It just feels warm and natural and loving,” says Paul. “I really like it.”
Taking care of her granddaughter also opened up Paul to new experiences and a new social network. “I enjoy taking her to such activities as seedlings classes at the garden, musical performances, the library, the zoo and visits with other granny-nanny friends and their babies,” says Paul.
It's Hard Work
Paul keeps a crib, high chair and other necessary equipment at her home for when her granddaughter stays overnight. She babysits about 20 hours per week, and while she says it’s hard to keep up with a two-year-old, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“She's very, very verbal, and that's getting to be really fun,” says Paul. “We've planted a vegetable garden, we cook, we go to the botanic garden and we have a fairy garden that we made.”
Providing childcare is a significant financial contribution. Although grandparents may feel as though they need to “spoil” their grandchildren with material gifts, Paul says that’s not necessary. She has fond memories of baking with her grandmother and attending ethnic Czech festivals.
“You know, gifts are not that important. It's really the time you spend with that child and what they're going to learn from it and the memories they are going to have from it,” says Paul. “I feel like my biggest contribution is to try to teach her kindness and respect and love for other people.”