Grandparents doing childcare: conscripts or volunteers?

February 17, 2014
grandparents with baby

It’s politically incorrect for grandparents to complain about the amount of childminding they’re doing. That’s why “Georgia”, like Deep Throat, asked for anonymity: “I have friends who say ‘It’s only for a short stage in our lives,’” she told me, “but my feeling is the stage when you’re fit enough to mind the grandchildren is also when you’re fit enough to travel and study and do the other things you wanted to do in retirement.” Just because most grandparents aren’t rebelling, or even like Georgia, voicing ambivalence behind a pseudonym, doesn’t mean the Productivity Commission should ignore the role played by this army of unpaid workers in propping up Australia’s childcare system, indeed its economy.

The federal government has asked the Productivity Commission to review the formal childcare sector. But the problems of affordability and access will be under-estimated unless the role of grandparents is factored into the equation. “We need to understand to what extent reliance on grandparents masks a problem,” Ian Yates, chief executive of COTA, the peak body for older Australians, told me.

The number of children minded by grandparents on a regular basis reached 937,000 in 2011 up from 660,000 in 2008. Nearly half of under three-year-olds with employed mothers are cared for, at least part-time, by their grandparents, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. But to what extent are grandparents happy helpers or unwilling conscripts? And to what extent is this generation of adult children putting the squeeze on parents because they’re tight-wads with a sense of entitlement; or because they themselves are being squeezed in an unprecedented way by steep childcare and housing costs? The high point for childcare costs was back in 2007 but fees have been escalating fast.

One thing is certain: more and more grandparents will be staying longer in the workforce through government pressure, financial need, and a gradually increasing pension eligibility age. It’s already happening. Grandparent care – grandmother care in the main – will be harder to get in future unless grandmothers leave work, and sacrifice their own retirement income so that their daughters and daughters-in-law can accumulate theirs.

Grandchildren are a joy. I’ve seen a few tough careerists and “absent” fathers transformed into doting softies with the arrival of grandchildren. As a report called Looking back, looking forward, by the Brotherhood of St Laurence reveals, many older people contrast the difficulties of parenting with the pleasures of being a grandparent. “Grandchildren,” one participant said, “are utterly perfect.” Academic Bridget Jenkins, from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, has found in research based on a small sample of grandparents that they love looking after their grandchildren, playing an important role in their lives, and helping out their children. But ten hours of childminding a week appears to be a threshold. Above that grandparents, ever-mindful of complaining, may express some ambivalence.

“There are definite costs to the grandmothers,” Bridget told me. “They’re not able to see their friends as much; some had withdrawn from the (paid) workforce rather than say to their children ‘find childcare.’” As well, there were financial costs as most grandmothers were not given money for the children’s food, transport or outings. And there were health issues: “Not serious ones but fatigue was an issue for some.” As for grandfathers, many were unhappy about excessive time spent childminding. Their attitude to their wives was, “If you want to do it, you do it,” Bridget said.

Most grandparents do less than 10 hours a week; but about one-third of children being minded by grandparents are with them for between 10 and 44 hours a week, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Is it possible that some of the joy lessens when high-hours carers must act more like parents – disciplinarians, organisers – and less like indulgent grandparents? Georgia, 65, was thrust into serious childminding when her daughter returned to work and needed help to get her two children to pre-school and school. “It’s hard physically, lifting them in and out of car seats, especially if they don’t want to go; then the school hat’s missing, the raincoats are missing; have they got sunscreen, their asthma medication…..?And then in situations where we would have given our children a smack…. well that’s considered a capital offence. I have to say what my daughter would say: ‘Now that’s inappropriate.’ After a certain age children dob you in.”

The oldest of Georgia’s children, who’d missed out on help with childminding, now feels a bit aggrieved; and the expectation is high that Georgia will help out her other children when the mothers go back to work. There are pleasures, especially the relationship she’s built with her granddaughter. But Georgia says, “I’ve been retired three years and there’s so much I wanted to do.”

Bridget Jenkins believes most adult children are reluctant to over-burden their parents: mothers try to limit their work hours as always; men still leave it to their wives; and the cost pressures on young families are real. “This is a nuanced and complex policy debate; both generations are trying to balance work and care,” she said. The generations, I believe, should pitch in to help each other if they can. That’s what families do. But the formal childcare sector is hugely important. It will be more crucial in future when grandparents are less available, either as conscripts or volunteers. It must be fixed.

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