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The grandparent trap

There's a trend these days which sees grandparents so involved in child raising that their twilight years have transformed into the twilight zone.

By Ingrid Pyne

Grandparenting used to be simple – see the grandkids on Sundays for lunch and some babysitting. But these days, some grandparents are so involved they’re transforming their twilight years into the twilight zone, writes Ingrid Pyne.

Photo top: Fay and Jim Likidis with grandkids (from left) Luca Bucciarelli, six, Anastasia Bucciarelli, three, Nicholas Kwan, eight, and – on Jim’s back – Oliver Kwan, five.

It used to be that your rating as a grandparent depended on how many lollies you doled out. Indulging the little ones with a surprise gift took you to the next level. And if you had them for the odd sleepover or treated them to an outing, you were elevated to Super Nan status.

Today, however, being a grandparent is a very different undertaking. No longer mere onlookers on their grandchildren’s lives, today’s grandparents are expected to be active participants – and financiers. Almost a third of Australian retirees dip into savings to fund their grandchildren’s school fees. Many more are spending their golden years chasing after toddlers, shuttling grandchildren between after-school activities, and even coaching junior sports teams on weekends.

Grandparents have become our most popular form of childcare, as parents grapple with exorbitant living costs.

“Approximately 837,000 children receive childcare from their grandparents in a typical week, far outstripping those in other forms of care, such as long daycare or before and after school care,”says Michael O’Neill, who recently ended a 10-year stint as chief executive ofNational Seniors Australia (NSA). “Grandparents provide care for an average eight hours per week, which is worth $1.5 billion.”

Many delight in the intimate bond they’re fostering, replacing more formal inter-generational relationships of old.

“They think our house is their house,” says Fay Likidis, 69, who, along with husband Jim, 70, minds grandchildren five days a week. “Many times their parents arrive and they say, ‘Oh no, it’s mum or dad. We don’t want to go.’”

Yet, other grandparents resent the workload and financial burden. They point out that while they got by in a modest house, struggled with mortgage repayments, missed out on holidays and rarely dined out, they are being asked to parent all over again so their children can live in large houses with all the mod cons.

Baby Love author Robin Barker with her granddaughter Sage Carruthers, 13.
Baby Love author Robin Barker with her granddaughter Sage Carruthers, 13.

Grandmother-of-two Robin Barker, best-selling author of Baby Love, believes some grandparents are exploited and feel uncomfortable refusing their childcare demands. “There can be a hidden resentment about what children expect their parents to do,” Robin, 72, says. “Some grandparents present oneface to their children and another to friends. In past eras, grandparents were there more as role models and for moral support. There wasn’t this expectation that they would step up and do the child minding.”

Yet stepping up they are. Of the children in weekly grandparental care, two-thirds receive up to 10 hours a week, according to a recent NSA study, and one in five receive 20 hours a week. This means 300,000 Australians aged between 50 and 74 care for their grandchildren, while a third of them also juggle jobs.

Robin is quick to point out not all of these grandparents are seething with resentment. “For some of them, minding toddlers and babies while their adult children work is a joy and a privilege,” she adds.

Jim and Fay are in this category. For eight years, the retired Sydney couple have had child-minding roles five days a week for their grandchildren, Nicholas Kwan, eight, Oliver Kwan, five, Luca Bucciarelli, six, and Anastasia Bucciarelli, three. While the children’s parents work, Jim and Fay cover the school pick-ups, shuttle the children to ballet and tennis, coach their football teams, feed them dinner, bathe them and oversee homework.

“When the grandkids came along, we just got consumed by their lives,” says Jim. “I don’t regret it for a minute.”

While Fay and Jim have put much of their life on hold, both insist they’re happy. PHOTO: Alana Landsberry.
While Fay and Jim have put much of their life on hold, both insist they’re happy. PHOTO: Alana Landsberry.

To watch Jim and Fay with their grandchildren is deeply moving, but even they admit this bond comes at a cost. Looking after small children is draining, and the pair can take their exhaustion out on each other.

“When we’re tired, we get more snappy with each other,” says Fay. Jim has never taken up those guitar lessons he dreamed of in retirement. Fay feels guilty she may be neglecting her ageing mother, who lives four hours away.

“If our friends say, ‘Do you want to have lunch?’, we can’t because we’re minding Anastasia,” explains Jim. “We don’t complain. We accept it.”

The couple joke they had to apply for annual leave when they decided to go to the Rocky Mountains and Japan this year. “I gave the kids eight months’ notice,” Jim laughs.

So have they ever thought of handing in their notice, permanently? “No. We wouldn’t change a thing,” says Jim.

Their grandkids have blossomed into confident, friendly, children. Their mothers, meanwhile, have maintained loving relationships with the children while pursuing career goals – Suzanne Kwan in marketing and Tracy Bucciarelli as a group finance controller.

“It’s important to us to help our daughters in their careers, I believe having financial pressures can affect marriages,” Jim says.

Fay and Jim with their entire brood. PHOTO: Alana Landsberry.
Fay and Jim with their entire brood. PHOTO: Alana Landsberry.

Almost two-thirds of Australian mothers with children aged 14 or under are in full-time or part-time work. While they tend to have lower incomes and a greater need for flexibility than they did pre-children, they have to deal with an expensive childcare system.

Cue the grandparent carer. Free and flexible, grandparents are also regarded as the next best thing to parental care. Some mind the kids the entire time their mothers work, but many more are used as a “safety net” in a more complex childcare package. They are used to drop off or collect the kids from day care or school, and in emergencies – “Molly has a fever”; “My car’s broken down and I need to take Sam to the doctor.” Sound familiar?

O’Neill says problems can arise when grandparents curtail their own careers to facilitate those of their adult children. An NSA study last year found 70 per cent of grandmothers change the shifts they work to meet their grandchild-minding commitments, while 55 per cent cut their working hours and 18 per cent had changed jobs. A third reported their care of grandkids had altered the timing of their retirement.

“There are significant implications for superannuation and retirement plans,” O’Neill warns.

Tom Davis, a principal adviser at MLC Advice, says it is important for grandparents to put their financial future first. “Grandparents need to remember that if they end up in a bad spot financially, that ends up impacting on their children anyway,” he says. His rule of thumb is that for every $10,000 grandparents forgo in wages, they miss out on a guaranteed income return per year of $500.

The same rule applies to grandparents helping their grandchildren with cash. As Australian families grapple with massive mortgages and a near doubling in the cost of raising children over the past 10 years, baby boomers are increasingly having to shoulder the financial burden.

A recent study by REST Industry Super revealed 72 per cent of older working Australians planned to draw down on their super to support their adult children, with 29 per cent planning to help pay grandchildren’s school fees and 21 per cent helping children towards a house deposit.

According to the NSA study, most grandparent carers say that where they live, their travel plans and even their hobbies are contingent on their caring duties. It can also be a toll on their health. Studies overseas have found that grandparents with primary responsibility for rearing grandchildren have a higher risk of depression, insomnia, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Tony van der Laak hugs his five-year-old grandson Flynn Beck.
Tony van der Laak hugs his five-year-old grandson Flynn Beck.

Yet for 67-year-old grandfather Tony van der Laak, his extensive childminding schedule may be benefiting his health. Tony, who suffered a near fatal heart attack 12 months ago, quit smoking and drinking and became more active to ensure he would be around for his grandchildren. “The heart attack made me realise that life is short,” he says.

“I am lucky they brought me back and I get to do this a second time over.”

Tony looks after three of his five grandchildren, including an 18-month-old, for four days a week, and is on standby to babysit on weekends.

Unusually, he does it alone: females make up 80 per cent of grandparent carers in Australia.

Tony’s decision to be so involved in his grandchildren’s lives is in stark contrast to his own parents’ attitude.

“When my kids were growing, my parents never looked after them,” he says. “I said to myself if I ever have grandkids and they want my help, I will do it. My kids have a mortgage, they need two people to work. And I enjoy doing it. Not all the time. When you have a bad day, it’s shithouse. But other days it’s great.”

Tony, a former truck driver, says he’s never felt bullied into the role. “I’m the type of person who will either say yes or no. If I don’t want to do anything, I will not do it,” he says.

Yet other grandparents don’t find it easy to say no, especially when a pattern has already been established.

Robin Barker believes some who agreed to a child-minding arrangement in the excitement over their first grandchild come to regret it, but feel unable to extract themselves. “It might be 30 years since they had experience with a toddler when they first sign up to the care, and they find it’s more physically and emotionally exhausting than they imagine,” she says. “But it’s hard to get out of it.”

Grandparents also feel the time they gave to one set of grandchildren must be extended to others to avoid bad blood between their adult children.

“This is fine if you only end up with one or two grandchildren, but can become problematic if more arrive and all your adult children expect the same level of care,” she says. “You could feasibly spend up to 15 years of your life caring for small children.”

So how much care is too much? Naturally this varies, but the NSA study found 13 hours a week seemed to be the tipping point.

Anne Hollonds, Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and a new grandmother herself, says that, as with any family issue, communication is key. She suggests grandparents considering a regular child-minding gig undertake a short trial first, followed by regular reviews of the arrangement.

“Grandparents need to be assertive enough to say, ‘We will be there for you but these are our limits’,” she says. “They need to think ahead and not just go into it blindly and expect it to be okay. If you are a first-time grandparent, only commit for a certain period. Say, ‘Let’s try this out for three months, or six.’ Then there’s an automatic review. And if it becomes too tiring, there needs to be an opportunity to say this isn’t working, without damaging the relationship.”

Yet even when everyone is happy with the amount of care on offer, the model is not perfect. Child-rearing trends have changed dramatically over the past six decades, creating fertile ground for arguments between tradition-minded grandparents and the more casual parents of Generation X.

Fay says she has at times struggled to follow the rules set by her daughters.

“When the kids were babies and toddlers we received a list from their mum. Some of the contents were useful but some we chose to ignore,” she says. “Controlled crying [designed to teach infants to fall asleep on their own] was an issue for me – I just couldn’t get myself to do it. I found myself sitting on the floor and holding their hand.”

It is also a constant struggle for grandparents to ensure they’re seen in a grandparent, rather than a parental, role. Fay says she refuses to force reluctant grandchildren to do their homework, believing this discipline is the domain of their parents. “I want to be a grandmother,” she insists.

Many Generation X parents are quick to trot out the old phrase that it takes a village to raise a child. They point out that in cities like Shanghai, 90 per cent of youngsters are looked after by at least one grandparent.

There are even “grandparent schools”, teaching the older generation “how to stand up to your whining grandchild”. Likewise, in Spain, half of grandparents look after grandchildren every day.

Yet Robin Barker says the “village” concept disappeared long ago. “As soon as they have a baby, people start waxing lyrical about ‘the village’,” she says. “But how many people want to live in a compound with their relatives and deal with the mutual obligations throughout their lives?”

As if to prove the point, six years ago Spain experienced the most unlikely of revolts. A call went out to burnt-out grandparent babysitters to go on strike. “Learn to say no” and “Don’t feel guilty” were the slogans.

While Australia’s grandparents no doubt had a chuckle, few would heed the call. And certainly not Jim and Fay. “We are too involved now to turn it around,” says Fay. “We’re just going to see it through,” agrees Jim, before adding wistfully, “I still reckon we’ll get to do a lot of things we wanted to. Like those guitar lessons.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.

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