My parents have a lollipop tree in their bathroom. It is a toothbrush holder in the downstairs bathroom that miraculously sprouts lollipops whenever their grandchildren visit. The five-year-old barely says hello at the front door before she charges off to check if the lollipop fairy has been. She emerges from the downstairs loo with her fists aloft and full of Strawberries and Cream Chupa Cups which she knows she’ll be allowed to eat before dinner. Grandparents’ home; grandparents’ rules.
Grandparents are magic. Being a grandparent, I’m told by the people who know, is magic. It’s all of the picnics, baking, library trips and – this may just be my mother – yoga lessons, with none of the bills, driving, screentime rows, or the obligatory membership of 79 different WhatsApp groups.
Grandparents are a gift to grandchildren too, a gift that goes on giving long after the grandparents are gone. I frequently talk about both my grannies to my children – how one was an entrepreneur before her time, and how the other could kill a wasp with her bare hands and was pathologically unable to resist a bargain. I recently took my artist grandfather’s sketchbook down from the shelf, and my oldest daughter and I followed his 30-year-old, step by step instructions on how to draw a boat. I haven’t heard his voice for 16 years, but it was there in my head that afternoon, telling her that if she can see, she can draw.
But what happens to the magic when being a grandparent becomes an obligation instead of a pleasure? When taking their grandchildren for an afternoon here and there isn’t here and there, but all day, every day? When looking after your grandchildren isn’t an indulgence for everyone, but a vital cog in the precarious edifice that is the dual-income family’s childcare arrangements?
Leave the workforce
A recent ESRI study entitled The Ageing Workforce In Ireland finds that “relatives, predominantly grandmothers, provide a significant proportion of childcare in Ireland”. It found that 7 per cent of those who leave the workforce between the ages of 55 and 59 do so to care for someone else. And five times more women leave than men. In 2016, 16 per cent of primary school age children were cared for by an unpaid relative or friend.
The data led to the usual round of griping about “parents taking advantage of grandparents”. Judging by the emails I sometimes get, some of this is well founded. There are more than a few disgruntled grandparents out there. They love their children and their grandchildren, they write apologetically. But they never expected to spend their third age working as unpaid childcare providers. They’re right to feel taken for granted. But it’s not necessarily their children who are exploiting them.