When I show up at the park, I’m often the only mom there–all the other adults are nannies or grandparents. The way that a lot of moms justify working is that their kids are with Grandma, who loves them just as much and did fine raising her own kids. Grandma is a perfectly acceptable substitute for mom, right?
There are several issues with this statement, and I’ll tackle a few of them after making a few things clear. The Bible admonishes us to honor the old and the wise. Godly grandparents are a blessing to any family, and I try to get my kids together with theirs as often as possible, considering the thousands of miles apart we live. I fantasize about living down the street from my mom, sending the kids over to help her in the garden every evening, and weekly date nights with my husband while the kids are at Grandma’s. This post in no way is critical of stay-at-home moms who get some much-needed help from Grandma. But I have a different response to the idea that there’s no difference between kids being raised by Mommy and those spending 40-60 hours a week with Grandma.
First of all, if Grandma raised her own kids, it was 35 years ago. She was a lot younger then. Every grandparent caregiver that I talk to says, without fail, “I’m not as young as I used to be!” Kids are exhausting. And there’s a reason God designed our bodies to have them in our late teens, twenties, and thirties, not in our fifties, sixties, and seventies. Modern science has allowed us to artificially stretch fertility into our 40s and even 50s, but older parents are finding that they don’t have the energy of their younger counterparts. Imagine pushing that back another 30 years–how much energy will they have to care for their grandchildren? I know several families where the daughter (or daughter-in-law) gushes about how great it is that the kids get to spend so much time with Grandma. When I talk to Grandma, she always talks about how tired she is. But what Grandma can say no to watching her beloved grandchildren, especially if the alternative is a nasty daycare? I think of my kids’ own grandmas, who are both young, fit and energetic, but find my kids exhausting after just a week of us visiting (while my husband and I are there watching the kids, too). They are amazing women who raised my husband and me well. They’ve both watched our kids here and there when my husband and I have had the chance to get away. But would I ask either of them to watch my kids full-time? No way. They dedicated 25 years of their lives to raising our brothers and us. It’s my turn to follow in their footsteps.
Secondly, in a lot of cases, Grandma wasn’t the one raising her own kids. She stuck them in daycare and, empowered woman that she was, went to work. She’s just decided to retire now to help out her kids, who can’t afford to pay for childcare. This seems to me to be a single-generation, short-term solution to the problem. Are all these working moms dropping their kids off at Grandma’s going to be willing to quit their jobs in the peak of their success to stay home and raise their grandchildren? And if they are, why not postpone their working years a bit and just stay home with their own kids, when they have the energy to do it well?
Another sad thing I’ve noticed with women who are their grandchildren’s primary caregivers is that they can’t spoil the kids the way every grandparent I know delights in doing. When you’re watching children 40+ hours a week, life isn’t all special desserts and fun field trips to the toy store. Last year, I had a heartbreaking encounter with a grandma at the library. She was watching her son’s daughters and sadly said that her daughter-in-law had such strict rules for the girls–organic food only, no refined sugar, no unapproved snacks, no screentime, and no licensed characters of any kind. She’d bought her granddaughter a My-Little-Pony coloring book, and when the little girl babbled joyfully about it to her mom (gone on a work trip), the daughter-in-law got her to put Grandma on the phone so she could yell at her for buying that trash. The Grandma looked at me with tears in her eyes: “I didn’t know it was on the no-no list. I can’t bake for her or buy her any special treats, so I thought a coloring book of horses would be safe.” I wanted to cry for her–and give her daughter-in-law a piece of my mind!
When Grandma becomes a primary caregiver for some of her grandchildren, it affects her relationship with the rest of the family, too. What does it do to a homemaker’s children’s relationship with their grandma if she is the full-time caregiver to their cousins? How does Grandma differentiate between being the authority figure for the grandchildren she’s raising and the fun playmate for the grandchildren in town for a visit? How does she try to keep things fair when she’s donating her time to one child (and giving up the chance to work a paying job) but wants to support her other children who are living a single-income lifestyle that she believes is best for kids? And how can she help out her out-of-state children in emergencies (illness, early pregnancy, new babies, accidents) if she’s tied down to watching the children of her local child? What if one of your kids’ grandmas is emotionally, physically, and financially available all the time, while the other is tied down raising your sibling’s kids? How do you explain to them that both grandmas love them equally, it’s just that one of them is busy donating her time to their cousins, who she doesn’t love any more, it’s just that their mom doesn’t feel like staying home with them, so grandma has to? At best, it’s a complicated and stressful scenario. At worst, you have huge potential for guilt on the part of the Grandma and resentment on the part of the family members who are in essence donating their share of Mom/Grandma time to the sibling who is making a life choice they fundamentally disagree with.
Should Grandma be the primary caregiver? She may be amazing, but she’s not the same as Mommy.