As a family therapist, I have noticed that retirees often end up becoming full-time babysitters for grandchildren, which can and often does cause insurmountable problems both for grandparents, parents and children. Understandably, new retirees may jump at the first chance to have unlimited time to give to their precious grandchildren; parents may thrill at low- or no-cost babysitting; and children may welcome increased opportunities to be loved and nurtured by their extended family members. The problem, however, arises when there are no clear boundaries set by the grandparents, for they typically end up feeling overused, under-appreciated, over-stressed, and devoid of a life separate from their children and grandchildren. For that reason, clear and concise boundaries are crucial.
No doubt, there are situations when families absolutely need to rely on grandparents, since due to financial constraints they cannot afford to pay babysitters. Even in those situations, however, limit-setting is necessary, but to a somewhat different degree and nature. Other issues that may arise and need to be addressed include disciplining techniques, food-related issues, bedtime rituals, and so on. Grandparents need to express their ideas clearly to parents and come to an agreement as to how children will be treated, as this will avoid conflict and possible long term discord and potential emotional turmoil for children.
In the case of Paul and Tricia X, who were both retired by the time their second grandchild was born, there were never any terms of babysitting discussed between them and their son and daughter-in-law; it was simply assumed from the start that if they were both ‘around,’ they would make a great team to care for their two young grandchildren–a newborn and a 3 year old. Their daughter-in-law returned to part-time work while their son worked full-time, and Paul and Tricia, 65 and 67 respectively, took over the care of the children three days a week. On weekends, they also frequently cared for the children when their son and daughter-in-law ‘needed’ time for themselves.
Paul and Tricia were eager to please. It made them feel important and needed. They also enjoyed the gratification of being with their two grandchildren. However, Paul had persistent health problems; Tricia was somewhat overweight; and the couple was having some financial difficulties since their home was destroyed during hurricane Sandy. They were temporarily living in a one-bedroom apartment, awaiting possible financial assistance from the state. They especially enjoyed taking care of their grandchildren at their son and daughter-in-law’s home since it was a luxurious private house with central air-conditioning. They would pack their own food for the day and bring it along, while most of the children’s food was prepared in advance by their daughter-in-law. The commute from their apartment to the house was approximately ½ hour drive each way.
Everything went well for the first few months of caring for their grandchildren, though there were definite differences in how the parents and grandparents nurtured and cared for the children. Oftentimes, Tricia would be criticized by her son and daughter-in-law for being too lenient and for not using any behavior modification to curb aggressive behavior by the three year old. She would also be told that she shouldn’t give the children certain foods, such as candy or cookies. Paul was criticized for not being more responsive to the children, as he would often sit or lie down in their presence. In general, it seemed that there was rarely, if ever, positive feedback given on how Tricia and Paul were caring for the children.
Over time, Paul’s health deteriorated and Tricia found that she had barely enough time to tend to her own needs. She ceased working on her weight issue and gained an unhealthy amount of weight, which made it even more difficult to tend to the children’s physical needs. She found it a strain to hold her infant grandson while chasing the three-year old around the house. Paul was unable to be of much help because of his failing health. Tricia also began to resent the criticism of the care she was providing, and wondered why her son and daughter-in-law didn’t seem more empathetic about their financial stress. After some time, she wondered why she and Paul weren’t being offered some financial reimbursement for caring for the children, given that it took up most of their time, and required spending a lot of money on gas to commute to and from the home.