The reluctant babysitter

Do we ask too much of grandparents these days?
Do we ask too much of grandparents these days? Photo: Getty Images

They were her grandchildren, so why was minding them so hard?

Though I’m used to shoving my way through shoppers, trolleys, walking aids and the odd bike or two, once school holidays hit, it’s the grannies herding hordes of schoolkids and reining in toddlers who I struggle to avoid.

I’m a reluctant granny. While I’ve been known to step up and provide care when needed, the increasing expectation that grandparents care for grandchildren once their parents return to work bothers me.
We don’t choose to become grandmothers. The grandparent role is one imposed on us when our children become parents. I was 49 when my daughter told me she was pregnant with her first child. The last thing I wanted at that stage of my life was to become a grandmother, a role steeped in obligation and expectation. Besides, I still had a troublesome teenager at home.

I was a disaster as a baby-minder. I remember with shame the first time Mia left baby Max in my care. I had just shut the door and heard her car leave when my heart began to beat faster and my breathing rate leapt. I felt utterly trapped. My attempts at explaining my negative feelings to my daughter failed miserably, leading to a painful but temporary rift.

Sitting uncomfortably: Looking after grandchildren isn't always a welcome burden.
Sitting uncomfortably: Looking after grandchildren isn't always a welcome burden. Photo: Simon Letch

However, three years later and with her relationship in tatters, Mia needed to return to paid work, so she asked me to care for Emma and Max. Although I had a mortgage and was still working, I cut my hours to help my daughter.

Meal times were the worst: ‘‘Mummy lets me have two scoops of ice-cream,’’ Emma screamed. ‘‘After you eat your broccoli,’’ I screamed back.  Then there were the breakfast battles. Plates of baked beans and bacon left untouched as they grabbed their bags and demanded a lift to school. Next came the cleaning, the beds, the washing and feeding the pets.

The experience proved to be a painful reminder of the motherhood grind and left me longing to be home where I could get on with my own life. But I continued to care for Max and Emma, for fear of further fracturing my fragile relationship with my daughter.

We often think of grandmothers as elderly women with time on their hands; women who’ve reared their families and who look forward to time with their grandchildren. But 21st-century grandmothers are often divorced, like myself, working, paying off mortgages and not nearly as fit as we were when we were rearing our children. Expectations need to change to fit the times. For many grandmothers, the experience of caring for a grandchild is mostly positive.

In New Age Nanas: Being a Grandmother in the 21st Century, Doreen Rosenthal and Susan Moore interviewed 1205 grandmothers, average age 63. The women were mostly well educated, happy, healthy, English-speaking, working and partnered. Overall, these grandmothers welcomed the arrival of a grandchild, regarding the experience as ‘‘a magical love’’ with positives far outweighing any anticipated downsides.

There’s no denying I was a reluctant granny. 


I didn’t want to be tied down looking after babies and toddlers any more.  I gave reluctantly of my time, because I wanted the time to do things I hadn’t been able to do before, such as go to university, travel and write.

Now they are older, I don’t do much child-minding, but many of my friends do. They are not happy.

‘‘I never have a day to myself any more,’’ one sighed. ‘‘Now I’m minding my grandchildren three days a week and working the other two – it’s getting too much.’’ The 66-year-old part-time nurse says the pressure for her daughter to work longer hours comes from her son-in-law. She isn’t happy, yet feels she must help out.

Her dilemma is not unusual. Another friend is facing similar pressures with her daughter’s husband also insisting his wife return to work.  ‘‘If it was genuinely to make ends meet I wouldn’t mind so much but it’s not for basic needs and I really feel exploited,’’ she says.  But on the other hand, the retired librarian loves being with her grandson.

The image of the white-haired elderly women awaiting the pitter-patter of little feet is one that many modern women are ditching. Instead, we’re pounding the treadmills, opting for Botox, with the iPad and mobile never out of reach. We’ve thrown out the bikes, scooters and toys, but the empty nest is still a dream as young adults remain at home and parents require care. It’s a dilemma faced by so many of us now sandwiched between two, now three, generations of semi-dependants.

Next week, I’m off to spend a couple of days with my granddaughter while her mum is away.  She’s now a beautiful 12-year-old. I plan to enjoy this time because I no longer need to hover and any struggles over broccoli are past.

How have you adapted to becoming a grandmother? Were the expectations hard to handle? Leave your comment below or join the discussion in the EK forums