Would you move home to help look after your grandchildren?

Grant Woodward meets the couple who did just that as figures show one in four families now rely on grandparents for help with childcare.

Wednesday, 13th January 2016, 5:27 pm
Updated Wednesday, 13th January 2016, 5:29 pm
One in four families now rely on grandparents for help with childcare - but there can be pitfalls. PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.

AS her three-year-old grandson fishes plastic sea creatures from a crepe paper pool, Annette Hall is explaining how she and husband Kevin relocated to Yorkshire to help look after him.

With more mothers returning to work after having a baby, parents are increasingly turning to grandparents for help. One in four working families now depends on them for childcare, whether it be for dropping off and picking up from school or providing regular care for babies and toddlers.

Even so, moving house takes some beating in terms of commitment. In Annette and Kevin’s case, they upped sticks from Lancashire so they could be within walking distance of their daughter in Leeds to help look after grandson Brandon. And both insist they were happy to do so.

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“It’s a new lease of life for us,” says Annette, a former teacher. “We do miss our long-standing friends but there are so many pluses, even just little things like being able to see him swim.

“When Brandon was born we were coming over once a week and staying on a blow-up bed. But we realised we were missing the best time with him. We were both retired and fine healthwise so there was no reason why we couldn’t do it.

“The great thing, as a grandmother,” she adds with a whisper, “is that when your children grow up you get used to the two-second hug. But children at this age will cuddle you and fall asleep in your arms. You just can’t do that on Skype.”

We are talking in hushed tones because story time has begun. This bright, airy room at Crossgates Library in Leeds is hosting Grand Buddies, a monthly session for those looking after their grandchildren.

Helen Linton, from the local children’s centre, says the idea for the group was born out of the sheer number of grandparents she came across who were taking a more hands-on role. Around 40 families have since passed through the doors.

“They are fantastic role models because they have such great experience and knowledge of looking after children,” she says, as we watch the children and grandparents get stuck into the Lego.

“There are lots of grandads who come and many probably didn’t get to spend as much time as they would have liked with their own children because they were busy working. It’s lovely to see them experiencing some of this for the first time.”

It’s clear from the smiling faces that the benefits of this arrangment are often a two-way street. For parents it offers the reassurance of knowing someone you trust is looking after your children. For grandparents and their grandchildren, it’s a chance to build the sort of bonds that just don’t have time to form over a hasty weekend visit.

There’s some reassurance in this for me personally, too. Not so long ago, in this very newspaper, I wrote of the remarkable support offered to my wife and I by our respective parents when it came to looking after our twin children.

With both of us needing to go out to work, in my wife’s case on a part-time basis, and the children not quite of nursery age, there were two days when we were stuck for childcare.

Their grandparents dutifully filled the breach, saving us the worry, and yes, money, involved in finding a stranger we were happy to entrust with the twins’ care.

I wrote of the effect this arrangement had on our lives. Yes, there were some strains involved in seeing our parents and in-laws on a weekly basis, and it wasn’t always easy for them if the children misbehaved, but rising above that was the joy of watching a genuine bond develop between our children and their grandparents.

What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the reaction to the article. One email in particular stood out. It accused me in no uncertain terms of taking advantage of my parents, the upshot being that I should be ashamed of myself for burdening them with such responsibilities at their time in life.

So it’s good to speak to Eamonn McGee, a sprightly 68-year-old with 10 grandchildren, though just the one, two-year-old Elsa, with him today.

“I’ve always wanted to help but circumstances dictate as well,” he says. “We look after four of them at the moment. They come round at 8am and we get them out to school, then we have Elsa during the day.

“I enjoy my time with them. With my own children I missed being with them as much as I wanted to. I had a year’s sabbatical with one of my sons and the family say I’m closest to him even now.”

So why does he think that so many grandparents are being asked to take more of a hands-on approach than they might have reasonably expected?

“I think the economy has a lot to do with it,” he reflects. “More women now go out to work and to buy a house you need at least two wages, where we only needed one.

“There is more pressure at work too. They work longer hours and to get ahead you feel you need to put all these hours in and do more than you probably should be doing.”

There’s another factor at work too, though. If you ask the grandparents, they say their children are more demanding when it comes to lifestyle and aren’t prepared to forsake expensive gadgets.

And where they carried out home improvements as and when they could afford them, the younger generation aren’t always prepared to wait.

Not are all grandparents are willing or able to provide the level of support extended by the likes of Eamonn or Annette.

Some grandparents still work, leaving them little time or energy to lend a hand. David Cousins, from the Leeds-based Grandparents’ Association, also stresses that looking after your grandchild should be a joy, not a duty.

“It’s important if you’re a grandparent that you only commit to what you can do, and acknowledge your limits. If you get tired easily, have a health condition or are looking after someone else as well, you need to be careful that you don’t overstretch yourself. Nor should other important things in your life such as being with your partner, seeing your friends or doing your job suffer as a result.”

Parents thinking of asking for help in looking after their children should be grateful for what grandparents are willing to do to help and not put pressure on them to do more.

Grandparents can find that looking after young children leaves them tired or out of pocket. As such, it is advisable to establish some ground rules first and raise issues as and when they appear.

The Grandparents’ Association has come up with its own template for a family childcare checklist which can help iron out any possible problems and misunderstandings. It might include how many days a week are covered, where the childcare is taking place, pickup times, suggested activities, and who pays for food.

“Grandparents have told me that when they have sat down with the family and been frank about how exhausted they were, how expensive it was getting and so on, things have got much better,” says the organisation’s national development manager Judith Howell.

“The parents may not have thought about it from your perspective or they may still think of you as you were 10 years ago, not now.”

Back at Grand Buddies, story time is drawing to a close. “If grandparents don’t want to help they shouldn’t feel guilty,” says Annette Hall as she prepares to wrap grandson Brandon up to face the elements.

“Two days a week is about right for us. If you’re a full time carer it’s no longer a grandparent-grandchild relationship. He still enjoys seeing us and we wouldn’t want to lose that.”