Grandmothers on the Split Shift: Work and Child Care

Posted by Mary Quigley on May 19, 2017 10:00:43 AM
Mary Quigley


Using vacation days and flex time, working boomers help out by providing child care for their adult children’s kiddos.


Every Thursday, Lori Bitter and her husband pick up their six-year-old grandson after school in a Bay Area suburb, take him to his theater class and then home for dinner, often with a prepared casserole for the family. On Earth Day last month, they attended a school program and joined an audience filled with other grandparents, many also sitting in for working parents.


Across the country in a Long Island suburb, Kathy O’Neill came out of retirement to watch her four-year-old granddaughter full time after the babysitter broke her leg. Next fall, when her school teacher daughter-in-law ends maternity leave, O’Neill will also care for the baby boy.


Bitter and O’Neill are among the legions of grandmothers—and some grandfathers, too—who provide childcare, some full-time, others a few days or afternoons weekly, and others as backup. Despite the demands on their time and energy, many willingly volunteer because often there’s no alternative. Some daughters are single moms; others are working double shifts or going to school at night. Some work demanding jobs, on call 24/7, with last-minute meetings and travel. Day care is exorbitant and ends at 6 p.m. Grandma, with years of experience, has flexibility and accumulated vacation and sick days. So when the nanny quits, or soccer season starts or a sick child can’t go to daycare, who you gonna call? Grandma!


Grandparents are not sitting home with time on their hands. Of the 2.7 million grandparents who provide care giving, more than half are working. And watching grandkids costs money. Bitter, author of The Grandparent Economy, found that grandparents spend an average of $2,000 yearly on out-of-pocket expenses, and many more than that.


It’s not uncommon for grandma to pay for diapers or formula for a struggling family. Other well-off families pay for “extras” like summer camp, money they might have used for their own adventures, or more important, savings. "Many 50- and 60-something working women are neglecting their retirement funds and instead spending on grandchildren’s needs", Bitter says.


Several years ago, Syracuse University sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer attended a conference and was surprised to find that the hot topic among her 60-something colleagues was child care. They all loved their grandchildren but sometimes felt pressured to pitch in even when it conflicted with their work.


Realizing that her own future might be more changing diapers between classes than relaxing, Meyer, 57, wrote Grandmothers at Work. She emphasizes that all the women interviewed found caring for grandchildren a “joyous experience” they wouldn’t trade for anything. Still many admitted to feeling conflicted. Babysitting had impacted their social lives, retirement savings, travel plans and other family relationships.


Despite the downside, some grandmas step in because they want to build deep bonds with grandchildren. Others are afraid if they say no, parents will turn elsewhere for help and they will lose out. Many of the grandmothers truly enjoyed their role. One told her, “The kids are only little for a short time. If I miss a bridge game for the second grade play, my feeling is enjoy them while they are young.”


Meyer found that in some families the arrangement is a well-oiled machine; in others it’s catch-as-catch-can. Some of the stress points and how grandparents handle them:


Tips for Managing the Split Shift Role

Granny, Not Nanny

Many women want to make it clear, “I am not a babysitter, I am the grandmother.” While some women did accept money, in no case was it equivalent to full-time pay, and when offered a salary some found it offensive. “Taking money out of the equation means that she’s still grandma, not an employee.”

Setting Limits

Instead of retiring, some grandparents continue so they can use work as an “excuse” to limit their availability. “Can’t help out on Thursdays, have a regular meeting.” Others screen their calls and don’t answer if they suspect it’s a call for child care.

Managing Sibling Rivalry

Many of the women Meyer interviewed are “sequential grandmothers,” caring for one grandchild after the other. Siblings spar over who gets first dibs. Or they will complain that “Grandma is doing too much for one adult child.”


Still, most grandmothers see the close relationships that form with the youngest generation as a win-win all around. Even though providing full-time child care means that Kathy O’Neill must travel 45-minutes each way from her retirement beach cottage and moving her beloved barre classes to an evening session, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love the quality time with my granddaughter and being so close to her,” she said.


Tags: Relationships and Family, Caregiving