I'm the Grandmother, Not the Babysitter!

We all want to help out with the kids, but no one wants to be taken for granted.

By Barbara Graham

When my son was a baby and my parents came to visit, I never dreamed of asking them to babysit while my son's father and I headed to the nearest spa for a few days of R & R. Au contraire, I cooked elaborate meals, took care of the kid, and generally did everything possible to make sure the grandparents enjoyed their stay. Anyhow, even if I secretly longed for a break, my folks were the admire-the-cherub-from-a-distance type and never showed the least bit of interest in being hands-on.

Fast forward to the present. Sometimes it seems as though my son and his wife view my every visit as an open invitation for them to take a hike (literally and metaphorically) and leave me — and my husband, when he's along — with the two little ones. I ask you: Where are the elaborate meals? The jumping through hoops? What happened to the old honor-the-grandparents-and-make-them-happy approach?

I'm sort of kidding — but not entirely.

Now, don't get me wrong. I adore my grandchildren. I yearn to spend quality time with them. I despair that I live thousands of miles away and see them only a few times a year. I voluntarily sign on to take care of the girls for days at a time. I'm thrilled that my son and daughter-in-law trust me enough with the kids to fly the coop.

So, what do I have to kvetch about? My situation is pretty terrific, all things considered. And yet ... there are times when I feel, if not exactly taken advantange of, then taken for granted. Not unappreciated, just slightly underappreciated. Like a powerless servant — minus the paycheck.

I seem to have plenty of company.

"No question, our kids expect much more from us that we ever did from our own parents," says Florence Falk, a New York City psychotherapist and the grandmother of a 4-year-old girl. "Our grown children also seem to have a much greater sense of entitlement than we had." Falk thinks this is because our relationships with them tend to be far more casual and open than they were with our parents. That's the good news.

"But such a high level of expectation can put a real strain on grandparents," she adds. "In my case, I have to remind myself 20 times a day that I'm the grandmother, not the babysitter. My goal is to help out as much as I possibly can, stopping short of the point where I start feeling resentful, completely drained, or out of touch with my own needs. There's a fine line," she says, "and it takes constant vigilance not to cross it."

I couldn't agree more. There are times when I've crossed that line, times when I've agreed to a bit more childcare than I really had the energy for — and paid the price. When this happens, I can't blame my son and daughter-in-law. The pressure to say yes to their requests doesn't come from them, it comes from me, from my love for them and for my granddaughters. And from the lingering sense of guilt that seems to be part of my wiring.

Note to self: Remember, it's okay to say no!

Saying no becomes even more important when the grandparent actually is the babysitter, a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise. Janet Bodle, a semi-retired family physician in the San Francisco area loves caring for her two grandchildren, ages 4 and 6, two days a week while their parents, both teachers, are at school.

"Clear communication," Bodle says, "is the key to making the arrangement work, especially since we're all so busy." To make sure everyone is on the same page, she puts the schedule in writing and e-mails it to her son and daughter-in-law. And, she says, "They're free to ask me to pitch in at other times, and I'm free to say no." Still, Bodle likes to say yes as often as she can, adding that spending time with the kids before they get completely swept up in their own lives is her top priority.

Which brings me back to Point A: I adore my grandchildren. I love my son and his wife. I know that being a parent today is in many ways more complicated than ever before, and I want to be there for them — and for myself. It's just that sometimes, when I start to feel like a servant and I'm so tired my vision blurs, I get a tad cranky. At those moments, a few extra words of grateful acknowledgment from my beloveds couldn't hurt.

My friend Mary told me a story the other day that says it all. Mary just spent a month — voluntarily, joyfully — helping her daughter after the birth of her baby, Mary's first grandchild. One day, after Mary had spent the previous nine hours washing dishes, folding laundry, helping with the baby, and shopping for and preparing two meals, she turned to her daughter and said, "I'm exhausted!"

To which the new mother replied, "Why are you so tired?"

Comments

Thank you for this article. I surfed the internet looking for support in my predicament as a grandmother living in a different city to her grandchildren. My daughter is exhausted by her very young family [aged 5,4,and 1 ) and I have tried to support her all along, although when I visit we end up quarreling due to my own exhaustion sharing the care of the children for a fortnight at a time.I find that my age and incipient arthritis and the natural exuberance of the kids leave me exhausted by the evening.
The baby specially is at that age when everything is a struggle from changing his nappy to keeping him out of mischief. My daughter overestimated my stamina and leaves me holding the baby for longer than expected. I have offered to support her economically so that she can get some paid help and she has taken umbrage to it.

She has told me to keep my money thanks that I may need it to pay for a nursing home. I have interpreted these words meaning that if I don,t help her in her hour of need she might do likewise with me when I need help in my old age. like you i love my daughter and I don,t want to fall out with her.

Dulciedomum on 2014-04-07 07:35:27

I just want to say that I am not a grandparent nor do I have any children so there is absolutely no bias in my comments. I am 47 years old and have witnessed enough in my lifetime when it comes to this to have as much knowledge as anyone in this area. Because you do not have to have children to know what is right.

I have known countless people - friends, relatives, coworkers, etc., who expect the grandparents to watch their kids anytime they want. They expect them to pick them up from school, watch them in the evenings, weekends, etc. and there are no boundaries, it is just expected because they are the "grandparents" or because they are retired and "don't have anything else to do".

Now, if they pestered their children to produce grandchildren, then I think they should be willing to help out more than average. I have seen people who didn't really want children pressured into having them because their parents wanted grandchildren. If that is the case, then they need to help out as much as possible.

But some grandparents never asked to be grandparents. So why should they be expected to diaper babies and raise grandchildren if they were relieved to have all of that behind them?

I have friends who just expect others to help out on a regular basis. It is expected. It shouldn't be. If you chose to have children it is your responsibility to care for them 24 hours a day. If someone else offers to help and wants to, then by all means let them. But you should never expect it. Your children may not even be pleasant to be around. Why should people be subject to that because you chose to have them?

On the flip side, grandparents who never offer to keep their grandchildren or actually charge money to watch them (my ex-husband's ex mother in law actually charged he and his ex wife to watch their son) should be ashamed of themselves. You should want to know your grandchildren for goodness sakes. If the kids are so horrible that they are unpleasant to be around well then that is a different story. Nobody should be forced to put up with a bunch of little maniacs who were not raised right.

I just get so sick of seeing people cranking out children then expecting others to raise them and care for them. They are YOUR responsibility and not anyone else. If someone offers to help you with them - GREAT! But if not, then you should never expect anyone to give up their time to look after YOUR children unless you are paying them to do so. If your parents do not want to help out with your children on occasion then just suck it up and realize you got handed a crappy card in life. But if they watch them occasionally then you should be appreciative and not resentful if they don't want to watch them every single weekend. You had them, they didn't.

ReasonLogic on 2014-02-21 07:15:52

My son-in-law says to me I'm the grandma... Every time he wants a babysitter .. I'm not sure how to react to this

squires10@juno.com on 2014-01-26 23:36:06

My son-in-law says to me on the grandma.. Every time he wants a babysitter I'm not sure how to answer this

squires10@juno.com on 2014-01-26 23:29:14

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