This article is part of the My Generation topic. Below are more articles in this topic.
Courtesy of My Generation.
Becoming a grandparent is something many men and women look forward to as they head into their 50s and 60s. While for some it is the sign that they are now officially “old” and they try to avoid the traditional names of granny or grandpa, coming up with more creative ideas; for most, the idea brings real joy. What eventuates, however, may be a little different than expected.
For those who had envisaged arriving to play with the grandchildren on Sundays and doing the odd bit of babysitting, the role of grandparenting may be a much bigger task. As more mothers return to work when their children are still quite young, their ideal choice for a carer is likely to be the grandparents.
In Maori, Pacific Island and Asian communities, there is a long tradition of grandparents taking care of and rearing their grandchildren. Amongst New Zealand Pakeha, though, it varies from family to family. The SKI generation (those busy spending the kids’ income) may be too busy planning their next overseas trip to want to be pinned down to taking little Jemima to kindergarten on Thursdays, but they'll do what they can when they're around. Many prefer to act as safety net – they do not take the place of the child care centre, but if the child is too sick to attend, they'll be called in to be at home with them for the day.
According to Families Commission research, grandparents play key roles within families by promoting wide family cohesion and by transmitting knowledge and wisdom over the generations. Grandparents can also play a major role in providing a stable environment for their grandchildren if the parent relationship breaks up.
According to American academic Vern Bengtson, there are four symbolic roles of grandparenthood; being there; the national guard or family watchdog; arbitrators; and active participants in the family’s social construction of its history.
The Commission's research has found that most grandparents are usually not paid, but their families will often pay their expenses, pay for them when they go out, and invite them for dinner at home regularly and help them out with house repairs and mowing the lawn.
Some grandparents have actually set themselves up formally as childcare providers through organisations like Porse, says Anne Kerslake Hendricks, principal policy and research analyst at the Families Commission.
Some grandparents will alter their work schedule to fit in with their grandchildren, just as parents do with their own children, she says.
“Some people take on contract work that fits with the (school) schedule,” she says.
Kerslake Hendricks knows of one case where every week the grandparent swaps roles with her child – the parent stays home with the kids and the grandparent does her child's job for the day.
“People thought it was worthwhile to put their own career on hold to spend time with grandchildren. Most of them saw that as a positive thing. They didn't resent it,” says the Families Commission policy analyst.
“By and large it's a reciprocal pleasure,” she adds.
Ruth Schoeder, an Auckland grandmother of two little girls, has taken to grandmotherhood like a duck to water and is happy to do regular childcare.
“I love it, it is like a completely new chapter in my life. I think I enjoy it more than I suspected I would,” she says. She is fortunate that she works from home while her husband goes out to work and this makes it possible for her to look after the one year old one day a week.
She wouldn't think of being paid for the help she gives her daughter who works three days a week. “It's not like she's buying something – I'm taking care of her kids. Usually she buys me nice presents.”
Schroeder and her daughter will often do things together with the girls when neither of them is working – they only live 150 m apart.
As is often the case, Schroeder spends more time with the girls than her husband does. “He loves the girls, he's mad about them, but he doesn't spend too much time with the girls by himself. He needs some support,” she laughs.
Grey Lynn grandfather Rob Peters is loving his new grandfather status but he can't supply childcare on tap. Semi-retired and with a love of travel Rob and his wife Kate often go off on jaunts to Europe or fishing in the boat they own with friends, so they are probably not there as much as their daughter Tina would like, but when they are around, they are happy to jump to and help. Rob jokes that his 10 month old grandson is his wife's entertainment centre.
Looking at their group of friends, Rob says there are definitely those who refuse to get too involved with the childcare of their grandchildren. The don't want a “regular arrangement,” he says. “Others are so involved we think we would not have their lives,” he says.
“We are so close geographically to Tina we are often there and Sam's often here. It's very informal. Tina is finding that it's a huge support. “He's an angel baby, so responsive to people, such fun, but we can give him back. I think we have the best times.”
If he and Kate were asked to commit to a definite arrangement, he says they would have to decline. “We travel around too much, that's the reason we don't have a dog or a cat. We would say we'd be very happy to do it every Wednesday we are here but would not like to have that as a life commitment.”
At the other end of the spectrum, there are a growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren in New Zealand.
The main reasons, according to Diane Vivian, national convenor of charitable trust Grandparents Raising Children, is alcohol, substance abuse, mental illness and violence. She says she has almost 4000 carers on the books and it happens to families across all socio-economic sectors.
“A lot of our caregivers are doctors, nurses, lawyers,” she says.
“When push comes to shove you dig deep. It changes your whole lifestyle. And often because of the circumstances you are raising challenging children,” says Vivian.
Vivian and her husband are bringing up two grandchildren, now teenage girls.
Like many of the cases, sometimes she feels like she hasn't had the opportunity to be the indulgent grandmother to the girls – she has had to be the parent.
But her girls don't go to bed without being told they are loved, she says.
“Never in a million years is any grandmother prepared to be raising their grandchildren,” she says. The first Grandparents Raising Conference is happening in October this year which will attract grandparents, kinship carers, psychologists, judges, and lawyers. Minister of Social Development and Employment, Paula Bennett will be keynote speaker.
Vivian is lobbying for is equal status for grandparents as foster parents. While after many years of campaigning, grandparents are finally receiving the same child benefit for the children they are rearing, grandparents do not get the extras that foster parents receive like the $1200 plus annual clothing allowance, money for birthdays and Christmas, etc.
For grandparents who are retired and on a pension, it is a big financial burden to be rearing grandchildren, particularly as they grow up and become more expensive, says Vivian.
One of the key questions to have answered if you are doing regular care for your children is: do you expect to be paid for it? The experts view is that, if the parents would otherwise be paying for the childcare, then yes, they should make the offer.
Mary and Reg Pettigrew moved from South Africa to follow their daughter, Kate Alexander and her family. For their first four years here, the Pettigrews looked after their two granddaughters who are now eight and 15. Now two days of the week they do after school care, while Alexander's in-laws do three days. As well as paying both, Alexander has them all for a meal on Sunday once a month, and takes them out regularly. She shouted all four to the Simon & Garfunkel concert recently.
Alexander says she pays the market rate because: “ I expect a proper job. I don't like asking people for favours. And they do much more for the money – sometimes they've cooked me dinner, or have gone and picked up my dry-cleaning.”
Alexander likes the arrangement of having two sets of grandparents share the after-school run. “Nobody gets worn out,” she says. She realises she has an enviable situation.
“The thing for me is the unconditional regard that they have for my children,” she says. She also finds they set good boundaries for the girls. And for herself, there is relief from ‘working mother guilt’. “If I didn’t have them, I don't know if I would go to work.”
One of the benefits Mary Pettigrew has found is that their interaction with their grandchildren and their schools introduced them to a whole community. This was especially welcome when they were new to the country.
“It got us out there, we got very involved in their little lives.”
The arrangements has also improved her relationship with her daughter. “With my own grandmother it was a case of saying hello on Sundays. I never got to know her. With my grandchildren, I know their likes and dislikes, I feel their pain.”
Taking such an active role in grandchildren’s lives is not an option for all, however.
Family therapist Diane Levy and a grandmother of two at a youthful 61, says hers is the first generation of women who started interesting careers after their children were grown.
“My eternal guilt about this is this is the time when I should be around for the grandchildren, helping the family, but I'm now working full tilt in a glorious career. I have delicious grandchildren I adore and worship, but I'm not around anywhere near as much as I would like.”
Levy's husband Vernon spends much more time with the four and five year olds, who live just round the corner. “He does more grandmothering that I do,” she says. “I feel quite torn and envious of my friends saying ‘I have my grandchildren every Thursday’.”
One thing grandparents can do , working or not working, is to build in some traditions for the new families coming through, says Levy. She and her family meet up at their beach house every week o have dinner together and celebrate the Sabbath.
They both believe that what they can do now to help with the family is more important than leaving them a large legacy.
“My mother always said it is better to give with a warm hand than a cold hand. In other words - give in your lifetime.”