Why being a grandparent is more complicated than ever

Child-care worker, dog-walker, family wallet: the job of being a grandparent is more complicated, and fraught, than it’s ever been

A grandmother is frustrated with her grandchildren. (Mediaphotos/Getty Images)

(Mediaphotos/Getty Images)

Viga Boland was really looking forward to retirement. After 30 years of running a wedding photography studio with her husband out of Hamilton, it was almost time to sit back and relax, do some travelling. Then, in her late 50s, she found out she was to become a grandmother. She was overjoyed, but nothing changed in their retirement plans. “We weren’t the type who gushed over the baby and spent a lot of time hanging around,” she says. It was when her daughter moved to Cambridge, Ont., for a better job that involved frequent weekend shifts, that Boland was asked if she’d make the 45-minute drive every second Saturday to look after their toddler. It was pitched as a way for her daughter’s family to save on babysitting, have a caregiver they could absolutely trust, and get time with grandma.

“That’s how I got roped in,” Boland says. But a day would sometimes turn into a whole weekend. “A lot of grandparents can’t spend enough time with their grandchildren. I just was never that kind of a person,” she says. It’s not that she isn’t crazily in love with her only granddaughter, but it was tough to keep up with the little one’s constant energy. When Boland took her to the park, other grandparents would tell her how lucky she was to see her granddaughter so often. “I thought, ‘How often is too often?’ ” Boland says. “I can’t send her home when I’m tired.” And when her babysitting duties were finished, she had to make the exhausted drive home to Hamilton.

Boland talked to her daughter about hiring a caregiver, but was told with the mortgage and car payment, money was too tight for the $60/day registered daycare. Boland understood, until she arrived one day at their home and saw a brand-new, big-screen, high-definition TV. Then she felt used.

Next to becoming a parent, becoming a grandparent could well be the most exciting time in one’s life. Who doesn’t want playtime with toddlers without the mountain of dirty diapers or the sleepless nights? But the role of a grandparent has changed. Comparable Canadian numbers are not available, but south of the border, 60 per cent of American grandparents provided child care for their grandkids over a 10-year period, according to a 2012 study. In Canada, multi-generational households are still unusual, but on the rise. Close to five per cent of children under the age of 11 live with at least one grandparent, according to Statistics Canada data from 2011, up from 3.3 per cent 10 years prior. And according to a new book by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, Becoming Grandma, the dynamics have changed. One telling tidbit from the book comes out of a conversation Stahl had with journalist Ellen Goodman, a friend, who told her: “I almost never open my mouth to criticize. All I open is my wallet!”

Grandparents take the Baby Care Workshop for Grandparents at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Ontario. (Doug Nicholson/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre)

Grandparents take the Baby Care Workshop for Grandparents at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Ontario. (Doug Nicholson/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre)

The fact is, parents no longer see grandparents as oracles of knowledge; the Internet provides ready advice for every bum rash, tantrum and night terror. Grandparents are encouraged to catch up with the research, which explains the burgeoning industry of grandparenting classes at hospitals and child-learning centres—but at the same time, in an era characterized by angst-ridden child-rearing and a surplus of parenting literature, parents often want to make every call themselves. The Boomers, accustomed to having things their own way, are increasingly faced with a dynamic over which they have little control. The parent-grandparent relationship has never been more complicated.

Rod and Eva Thompson found themselves navigating the new reality when their daughter-in-law suggested they take a grandparenting course. The pair had successfully raised children themselves, and were already doting grandparents to their other grandkids. Still, they agreed genially. There was no pressure, Rod says, “but think about what the implications would be by not coming.”

So, one chilly spring evening, they found themselves alongside six other grandparents-to-be at Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital. The class teaches the grandparents the latest evidence-based research on swaddling, sleeping practices and breastfeeding. Some dutifully took notes as if they were university freshmen. At one point, the instructor brought in a group of new parents—no relation, so everyone could be perfectly candid—with advice on what parents of a baby might not appreciate. Deliver food: yes. Walk the dog: that’d be helpful. Offer unsolicited advice: nope. Barge into the hospital delivery room when not specifically invited: definitely not.

In fact, experts recommend grandparents don’t see the baby for the first two hours of their life. “The reason is this: the babies have the highest oxytocin level they’ll ever have in their lives,” says Kerry Grier, a patient education specialist at Sunnybrook hospital who leads the grandparenting class. “[Parents] bond by looking at the baby with direct eye contact and talking to them. At that moment, the baby looks at the parent and is falling in love with the parent—oxytocin is the love hormone—and imprinting ‘this is what my dad looks like. This is what my mom looks like.’ It’s the only time in their life a face will go directly into their long-term memory.

“If you have grandparents crowding around, all wanting to hold the baby, [babies] are overwhelmed and shut their eyes. You’re missing out on this unique bonding time,” Grier adds.

A less hands-on approach may help even when the baby is older, say some experts. When Eva Bild, owner of the Mothering Touch resource centre in Victoria, started to offer parenting classes, she found the focus of most discussion wasn’t on breastfeeding techniques or how best to get a baby to stop crying, but rather how to deal with an overbearing grandmother who disapproves of a child’s sleeping habits or a grandfather who persistently sneaks the toddler sugar. Her advice is that grandparents find ways that help the family as a unit—mow the lawn, buy groceries—and not simply offer to hold the baby so mom can get some sleep. Stahl notes that paying for things—from daycare to university—is acceptable, too. “Grandparents today are spending seven times more on their grandchildren than they did just 10 years ago,” she says in an interview. “We are not just buying toys or clothes. We are now helping pay medical bills, getting their teeth straightened, and buying big-ticket items: the crib, the car seat.” Not that she’s complaining. Her book talks about the joy of grandparenting and her final chapter is a call to arms for those already sending money or acting as free daycare “granny nannies” to do even more.

Those who subscribe to the “it takes a village” school may scoff at the tone this sets: making grandparents run errands (or foot the bill) while giving them less precious time with baby. What’s at stake isn’t just what’s good for grandparents. A 2010 Oxford University study showed a strong correlation between a grandparent’s involvement and a child’s well-being: A grandparent taking an interest in the youngster’s hobbies was associated with the grandchild having fewer peer problems; getting involved with their schooling was associated with fewer behaviour problems; and grandchildren who talked about future career plans with grandma or grandpa had lower incidences of emotional issues.

The other simple rebuttal for grandparents being lectured by their adult children is, “We raised you and you survived.” Still, some of the new science is pretty unassailable. “The fact is not all the babies of that generation did survive as well as babies are surviving now,” says Grier, citing the new sleep guidelines. Putting babies to sleep on their backs, not their tummies, has, she says “really reduced the rate of sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS].” From 1981 to 2009, SIDS mortality fell from a rate of one for every 1,000 live births to 0.3 per 1,000 live births, according to Statistics Canada data, a 71 per cent reduction. Mortality between 28 and 364 days of age dropped by 64 per cent, to 1.3 for every 1,000 newborns, and the mortality rate of kids under the age of five fell from 9.7 for every 1,000 newborns in 1980, according to UN data, to an estimated 4.9 in 2015.

By the end of the class at Sunnybrook, Rod Thompson says the class should be mandatory for all soon-to-be grandparents. He may get his wish. Classes are popping up across the country and in other parts of the world, and sometimes the lessons of grandparenting class are useful even before grandkids are in the picture: “Parenting adult children is about offering help when it’s needed and asked for,” Bild says, “and then shutting up the rest of the time.”

Samantha Loewen never had the traditional grandparent-grandchild dynamic growing up in Saskatchewan. Her mom left the picture months after she was born, leaving her dad to raise her, with grandma filling the motherly role admirably. “I didn’t have the experience of grandparents spoiling their grandkids,” she says.

When Loewen had a daughter of her own five years ago, her in-laws were so excited that they planned to take their new granddaughter out for pictures for their annual Christmas card—just grandma, grandpa and baby. It immediately touched a nerve for Loewen. “My in-laws wanting to take a Christmas card photo with my daughter made it seem to me like they were going to be advertising to the world that I was absent,” she says. “Being touchy to the fact that my mother had left me, I wanted to make it clear that I was not leaving my kids. That’s not an experience most people have, but it shaped my view.”

Loewen’s other negotiations with her in-laws follow a more universal pattern. After she had another baby, the in-laws spoiled both kids with sweets and treats—as grandparents are wont to do—while Loewen was trying to establish a healthier diet, in part because of her own struggles with weight growing up. “They would have the dessert in front of my daughter’s face and then [ask me], ‘Is this okay?’ ” Loewen says.

In the new parent-grandparent dynamic, there are three areas where conflict is most likely to occur: food, sleep habits and discipline, according to Peggy Edwards, co-author of Intentional Grandparenting. (A fourth conflict, technology, could easily be added to the list.) If the parents are vegetarian, for example, grandparents may worry about the kids getting no meat. “When the grandchildren come to your house, you have to keep up the same diets they have at home,” Edwards says. Grandparents may think there’s no harm in secretly taking the child out for ice cream, but the real trouble is in not telling the parents. After all, she says, “the kids are going to tell on you anyways.”

Part of the picture is that parents tend to fuss over—or carefully consider, depending on your perspective—every detail more than ever before. But if parents today are fussier, new grandparents—with Millennials and Gen X opting for fewer children than their Boomer parents—have fewer grandkids in their lives than previous generations, meaning they can focus a lot more attention on any one child than earlier generations might have. “We coined the term helicopter parents to describe Boomer parents,” says Lori Bitter, author of The Grandparent Economy. Is anyone truly shocked they continue to hover?” Bitter goes on to explain that Boomers were the first generation with latchkey kids, in which two working parents might yearn to be at home with their kids after school but be stuck at the office. “Grandparenting is this parenting do-over in some ways,” she says.

That is, if the grandparents get the chance at all. Rivka Zelin (a pseudonym) has grandchildren who have never really been part of her life, much to her dismay. When her son married, he started to disengage from the family, but it was when he had kids that things escalated. Zelin wasn’t even allowed to touch her grandchildren at first, and visiting rights were far and few between—a more common scenario than people might realize, says Stahl. Distraught and depressed, Zelin started a chapter of Alienated Grandparents Anonymous in her city. The reason for the anonymity—and the pseudonym—is the fear that if her children knew about the support group, Zelin might lose the few opportunities she gets to see her grandchildren.

As for Viga Boland, things got harder before they got easier. A breakup forced her daughter to move back to Hamilton, where she was a single mom trying to make ends meet with a night job. Boland watched her granddaughter practically every day. That was a tough few years. Her body couldn’t keep up, and she says she nearly had a nervous breakdown. “It was more than I could handle,” she says. She says new parents need to understand that the default scenario for child care can’t be ‘I’ll leave her with mom.’ ”

It’s been about three years since Boland stopped being a major caregiver to her granddaughter, who is now in her early teens. With some free time, Boland and her husband recently took a long-overdue one-week vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. But now that they’re both in their 70s, the five-hour flight was too hard on Boland’s sciatic nerve problem and their accommodations had too many stairs to make walking enjoyable. When they got back home from their trip, they realized something: they’re simply too old now for the trips they once dreamed of. “We lost our chance,” Boland says, with a boisterous laugh. “I’m not resentful. It’s just the way it is.”

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