Tag Archives: grandparents

Grandparents who’ve lost contact with their grandchildren

May 31, 2015
grandparents hands1

It’s a shameful secret. It’s a cause of grief and distress. When grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren, the loss, in the words of one grandmother, is “akin to a slow death.”

Divorce has created an army of broken-hearted grandparents, estranged from grandchildren for reasons not always clear to them. Often it’s a former daughter-in-law who’s sent them into exile. But a major fall-out with their own child can sever family ties forever. The effects cascade down the generations.

In the UK more than a million grandparents have been denied access to their grandchildren. Here the numbers are unknown. One study revealed 17 per cent of paternal grandparents whose grandchild lived mainly with the mother after divorce never saw their grandchild again. It’s a familiar enough story. It happened in my own extended family; I’ve witnessed the pain suffered by good people who did nothing to deserve their 50 years in Siberia.

Recently a grandmother contacted me to tell me her story in the hope of reaching out to others. Let’s call her Jacqui. “It’s been some five years since I’ve seen my grandchildren,” she said. “I have one son who flies me around the world and entrusts me to be their children’s guardian when the parents are out of the country; and another son who’ll not allow me to have any contact with his children. My son is in a happy marriage and is a good parent; it’s a strong family unit and they don’t want me in it for whatever reason.”

It was only when the first grandchild was born nine years into the marriage, that her son began the process of cutting Jacqui out of his life. She managed to form a “wonderful connection” with the first-born, had little contact with the second, and never met the third grandchild who’s four. “The effect on me has been overwhelming emotionally,” she said, “and the grief has led me into therapy again and a stint back into mental healthcare as a result.”

She writes cards and letters to her estranged grandchildren but doesn’t send them. ”They’re here in my home,” Jacqui said, “so that when they’re older, and I trust one day I’ll meet with them, they’ll know that even though they’re absent from my life, they’re a constant in my heart.”

Like many in her situation, Jacqui has examined her own possible role in this estrangement. She’d always had a difficult relationship with this son, stemming from when she left him and his father for a time; and her problems with depression, leading to past suicide attempts, are probably a factor. “I’ve tried to address these issues with my son but he has a great deal of anger towards me,” she said.

When Jacqui lets slip her secret to others, she’s amazed so many other grandparents are also suffering in exile. Under mounting pressure from grandparents, the Family Law Act was amended in 2006 to acknowledge the special role of grandparents. Unless it’s contrary to their best interests, children have a right to regularly spend time and communicate with people significant to their “care, welfare and development.” Grandparents are singled out in the law. Since the change, it’s become a “growing area of dispute and court action,” says Andrew Corish, of Corish and Co, specialist family lawyers, with experience in grandparent issues.

There’s another side to this story: as there are selfish and cruel parents, so are there selfish grandparents who’ve been emboldened to pursue what they regard as a legal right to see their grandchildren. Some even consider denial of access a form of ‘elder abuse’. At a grandparents’ forum in NSW a few years ago, some grandparents wanted the ‘wellbeing of grandparents’ to be given equal consideration under law with the best interests of the child. Some grandparents can go too far. Fair or not, parents have the primary responsibility to make decisions about their children.

Andrew Corish told me aggressive, manipulative and interfering grandparents are usually given short shrift by the court. “Grandparents are not the parents,” he said. “Family law is not about grandparents’ rights; it’s about the children’s rights.” One assertive and over-involved grandmother arrived at his office with a 200-page affidavit detailing the shortcomings of the child’s mother. “The court wouldn’t have anything to do with her; she was too critical and controlling.”

But the family court, Corish said, will be sympathetic to and supportive of caring grandparents who want to maintain a relationship with their grandchildren, especially a good pre-existing relationship, and have also done their best to remain on good terms with the parents. In one case, where he represented a grandmother successfully, he’s stayed in touch long enough to see the relationship between the grandmother and granddaughter flourish over many years.

Most grandparents, like Jacqui, rule out court action – they don’t have the money, they don’t want to represent themselves in court, or they don’t want to worsen matters. Instead they live with pain and hope.

In the case I know, the grandchildren flourished. Their lives would have been richer and broader had they known their lovely grandparents. But it’s not always, or even usually true, that all children suffer due to grandparent deprivation. And sadly these children grew to adulthood with no interest in seeking a relationship with their grandparents. The grandparents suffered terribly.  But just like Jacqui, they had to get on with their lives.

Do you know of similar cases – and what might help? Please leave a comment.

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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.

What’s your view of grandparent care? Please leave a Comment.

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