Family Life: In Praise of Grandparents



Grandmas we love you, grandpas we do. It’s a twisted version of the one hit wonder from the St Winifred’s School Choir, but you get the message. 

Grandmas, grannies, nannas, grandads, poppas, whatever you call them… You know who we mean. They’re the superheroes that help us busy parents keep things running smoothly. Of course this is a generalisation and many people cannot rely on their parents or in-laws to muck in at all.

Nevertheless, statistics show that a large proportion of us are lucky enough to be in that situation. A recent survey revealed that almost one in five British grandmothers provide at least 10 hours care a week.

Geraldine Bedell, editor of social networking site Gransnet, believes the true figure is considerably higher. She argues that one in three working mums relies on grandparents for some form of childcare, while as many as 50% of women returning from maternity leave do so safe in the knowledge that they have a grandparent helping out.

grandparentsShe says, “Grandparents are increasingly crucial to families coping with childcare and I think that’s changed quite a lot in the last few years. Grandparents are a different entity from what they used to be. They may not be younger in years but they are in spirit and are much healthier and fitter too.”

In today’s climate many families require both parents to work, yet the cost of childcare can often be prohibitive.

Ms Bedell adds, “From Gransnet the sense we get is that most grandparents are helping out in some way. If they do a couple of days a week it makes the childcare more affordable. Grandparents will invariably go the extra mile.”

Gransnet was set up by the founders of Mumsnet early in 2011. Ms Bedell says, “Grandparents also wanted the advice and support because so many of them were involved with childcare. Mumsnet gave a voice to mothers and Gransnet is doing the same for older women.”

Tens of thousands of women access the site for advice, support and discussions on anything from car seats to politics. But there are a number of hot topics of conversation.

“The big one is whether to give advice or not,” says Ms Bedell.

“Unwanted advice can really damage relationships. Parents don’t want to be told they’re wrong and grandparents need to remember that parenting advice can become outdated too.”
Another regular talking point is the fraught relationship that some women have with their daughters-in-law. Someone who bucks that trend is 38-year-old Nicky Bloom, who gets on brilliantly with her husband Richard’s parents, Sue and Howard.

She says, “I lost my mum when I was four and it really hit me when I had children. In a way, that’s when some of the grief came out.”

Nicky says she is “incredibly grateful” for the love and support her in-laws have shown her and the children. Nicky works four-and-a-half days a week in the city, which means she regularly relies upon her in-laws to look after her children Alex (four) and Natasha (17 months).

“Richard’s parents are amazing people. I really don’t know where I would be without them,” says Nicky.

“They have always been so warm and welcoming to me and always treated me like another daughter in the family.”

Sue spends two afternoons a week with her grandchildren and has been doing so since Alex, her first, was a baby. Nicky says, “Alex is doing amazingly and his development owes a lot to my mother-in-law’s input. Seeing this amazing relationship develop between them is really special.”

Thanks to her in-laws, Nicky feels calm and confident in her job. “I really enjoy work because I don’t have to think about things at home. I love the fact that she gives the love, care and warmth that I would as their mum.

According to Nicky, she and husband Richard regularly express their gratitude – but for Sue, it’s a labour of love. Sue, 59, says, “When the children are sick, it’s not just a case of giving them a spoonful of Calpol. I can cuddle them and they know I love them.”

While it can be busy, Sue – who also looks after another baby granddaughter – says, “it’s great fun”.

“I feel incredibly lucky and privileged that I’m able to have that time with the children. When children spend time with their grandparents everybody benefits. We have the privilege of having an extremely close bond with the children and they feel totally at ease and happy and comfortable with us.”

Full-time mum Sarah Phillips, 32, wholeheartedly agrees with this sentiment. She says, “I didn’t grow up close to my grandparents, so it’s really important that my children have that.”
With six children aged between eight and three months, Sarah is always grateful for the help. Like Nicky, Sarah also lost her mother so she too relies on her mother-in-law for support.
Sarah, who lives in Finchley, says, “Frankie works full-time so she’s not often around, but since my eldest was a baby she has always had Thursdays off to spend with her grandchildren.”

“I’ve got used to knowing that Thursdays will be a bit quieter for me as she does whatever she can to help out.”

According to Sarah, Frankie is very “hands-on” and will often take the older five out in her seven-seater or even have them over for a giant sleepover.

“She’s always very willing and happy and we are very conscious that she doesn’t do too much. When my first, Lily, was a baby, I used to hand her over with a list of dos and don’ts, but now I have relaxed as a mother and know that Frankie is very capable of doing the right thing.”

While they may not recommend sending baby off to Grandma with a list of what not to do, the Grandparents Association has compiled an informal checklist for parents who rely on grandparents for childcare.

“Try and work out the practicalities early on,” says project co-ordinator Jan Fry.
“As you go on, certain things can become a bit of a problem. It may be discipline or the parents’ time-keeping. In addition, grandparents know that they are in a way entitled to break the rules because they have done it all before and it’s the grandparents’ role to be a bit more indulgent.”

“Families should work out a timetable and be open about things to avoid things going wrong.”

The Grandparents’ Association works on a range of projects, including lobbying the Government for tax credits and more flexible working arrangements for grandparents.
“A lot of grandparents are younger these days and many have parents who are still alive themselves, so often they have to look after them too and maybe even work,” says Ms Fry.
Few grandparents are paid for the informal childcare they do, says Ms Fry, “They do it for love and to help their families, particularly in these times when one parent might be redundant.”

The Grandparents Association run a helpline which regularly takes calls on more complicated issues such as grandparents who bring up their grandchildren, or those who are sadly cut off from theirs. Another focus is on setting up grandparent and toddler groups around the country.

“Children can sometimes be stuck in all day with an older grandparent,” says Ms Fry.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter at all, but a lot of grandparents say they don’t feel at ease in a group with young mums at their local drop-in session. It’s about trying to get them out and to build their confidence.”

✽ For more information on where to find a grandparent and toddler group or for general advice, visit:
Becoming a member on is simple and free.