Standing on the shoulders of grannies

  • Narly two thirds (63%) of all grandparents with grandchildren under 16 are providing some childcare, with one in five (19%) grandmothers providing at least 10 hours a week.

  • Between 2009/10 and 2010/11 the total number of child-hours of childcare provided by grandparents increased by 35%.

  • Grandparents Plus and Age UK have estimated the value of grandparental childcare at £7.3 billion, almost double its value in 2004 in cash terms.

I came across these statistics a few weeks ago,  after some idle Googling occasioned by the number of grandparents doing the school run. I had no idea whether our (big) village primary school was average or otherwise in there being so many children collected by extended family: anecdotally, there do seem to be lots of people who either grew up here or whose parents moved to settle nearby once children came along.

I should, in the interests of fair disclosure, admit that there’s probably an element of jealousy. We live within an hour of both sets of grandparents, but for different reasons neither can do  regular childcare. My parents, younger and in better health, have looked after my niece and nephews a couple of days a week since their respective mums went back to work after maternity leave, now combining nursery and preschool pick-ups with care at home. They would do the same for us if we lived locally, but distance makes it impossible.

When I was deciding whether to continue with work, using family at all wasn’t an option, as I know it isn’t for many people. What intrigues me, though, is how at a national level we are obviously coming to depend increasingly on grandparents either to provide childcare or to bridge the gaps between formal childcare and work demands. Shiftwork, obligatory overtime, emergencies, even the simple, deadly curse of presenteeism which mean the option of clocking off at 5pm disappears, make nursery, childminders or wraparound care of limited value. If both parents, or a single working parent, are unavailable to collect or unable to afford extensive care, particularly over school holidays, grandparents can pull two seemingly irreconcilable needs together. Of course not everyone has that option. But it’s clear that many do, and that patterns of employment will to some extent be shaped by that availability where it exists – putting, arguably, additional pressure on parents across the board whether a grandparent is on hand to help out or not. If an employee is known to have that safety net, in cases of illness or emergency  or unforgiving work schedules, won’t they be expected to use it? And what does this mean both for them and for those who don’t?

The figures in the report above are now a couple of years old. I would be curious to see if, and how, they have changed in light of recent changes in employment patterns and benefit payments. What happens where parents are forced to move away from extended family, or vice versa?

Of course, the reality is that it is overwhelmingly grandmothers who provide the childcare. (Don’t get me started on the usual line from all sides that they are helping out their daughters/daughters in law rather than the family as a whole). Those who are currently doing it, though, are from a generation which often didn’t work, or at least not full time, after having their own children, and who were able to take earlier retirement than their (usually) husbands. I’m not arguing that this is a good thing, or a status quo which should be preserved, but it is undeniable that women of my own generation will not be in the same position thirty years hence.

I also wonder what these figures mean in the context of increased pressure to get everyone of working age into employment, with the concurrent promises from all political parties to facilitate and increase provision of childcare – including extending school days and shortening holidays. If over a quarter of childcare in families where both parents work comes from grandparents, what will happen when the retirement age increases? More, surely this extent of input from grandparents masks the shortcomings of formal childcare arrangements; something to be aware of when considering the impact of the push to get more parents into paid work.I am no expert, but surely the ability of parents to work will be affected if their own parents, even if willing and able to provide childcare, are still in paid work elsewhere? Are the savings in pension payments ultimately destined to make up a shortfall in childcare costs? Is grandparental childcare the future “lifestyle choice” of the so-called well off who can afford to retire earlier than most?

It goes without saying that there’s more at play here than simple economics, although child welfare usually seems to come low down the list in discussions of reconciling work and childcare. But isn’t that the point? Grandparents save parents (and the economy) money, but they also ease transition; soften the edges between home and formal childcare. Behind these family dynamics, helping each other out even at some sacrifice and even if not altogether with pleasure, lie complex structures which enable people to operate in ways which can’t necessarily be made up elsewhere. We hear increasingly that getting mothers back into the workplace is vital to the country’s economic success. Maybe we should, as the report suggests, acknowledge the huge debt “we” already owe to grandparents who provide childcare, and look at more creative ways to facilitate what is happening, rather than making it more difficult (if not impossible) for it to continue.

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