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With Rising Costs and Demanding Lives – Are Grandparents Our Best Lifeline?

Before I had children, I assumed life would seamlessly fall into place after my baby was born. I’d return to my corporate job after a year of maternity leave, we’d ‘sort out’ the day care situation when the time came and I wouldn’t miss a beat. (I’ll just wait here while you have a good laugh.)

Fast forward to a few months after the arrival of my firstborn and – unsurprisingly – the reality hit. If the daycare waiting lists weren’t enough to scare me off ever going back to work, the fees sent me over the edge. Throw in the fact that I had not yet left my son with my husband – let alone perfect strangers – for any longer than a 2-hour stretch, and well, corporate life suddenly not only felt unappealing, but completely impossible.

Parents across the western world are familiar with this exact conundrum, and mine was not at all a unique problem. How on earth did parents make the juggle work? And did children always need to come as such an enormous sacrifice?

While many of us bite the bullet and make significant career changes or see enormous dents in our weekly pay packets (if they are not completely obliterated), there seems to be a pocket of parents who have won the jackpot. Not of the Powerball variety, but genetics. When all the life, career and parenting questions can be solved by the time, bank accounts and generosity of … Grandparents. 

Among my own network of friends with new babies, grandparents featured heavily. A handful of grandmothers dropped down to part-time work to mind the children a few days per week. One retired completely to look after her grandson full-time when his mother returned to work. Another offered to pay for the child’s childcare fees for the duration of their years in care.

It seems my friendship group is not unique, with The Atlantic recently reporting that this generation of grandparents is helping more than ever before to keep their grandchildren afloat.

I spoke to three different families about their experiences to dive deep into the rise of the grandparent.

Words: Amy Malpass Hahn | Images: Grace Alyssa Kyo 

The “Nanny”

Linda* has been caring for her two grandchildren in some capacity since they were born. “When my daughter had her first baby, she’d come over about every second day,” she said. “After about a month, she started doing some part-time work and would leave my grandson with me for a few hours, three days per week. At that stage, he was tiny and to my disappointment would sleep quite a lot!” 

Caring for her grandchildren had been something that had been on Linda’s mind for some time, and she was more than ready to make adjustments when her grandson arrived. “We discussed my role in helping to raise her children,” Linda said. “I chose to give up my position as company director of a large international company – a position I had held for 25 years, so I would have the time and the energy to help.”

While this type of sacrifice may seem significant, Linda says, “It was important to me as I wanted my daughter’s experience to be better than mine. As a working mother myself, with no family support and limited childcare options in the 80s, I knew first-hand that she needed me. And I wanted to enjoy a deeper relationship with my grandchild.”

A consideration for Linda was also her daughter’s career, which she knew she had worked incredibly hard for in the years leading up to the birth of her first child. “I wanted to support my daughter and encourage her to pursue her career goals knowing that her child was well looked after. And I had no intention of being a visiting grandmother. I wanted to be a real hands-on Nan.” 

If she sounds like a living, breathing Mary Poppins, wait until you hear her next comment. “I am not compensated in monetary terms,” Linda says. “I am paid with kisses and cuddles.” (Cue: sobbing from mothers globally.)

Some may be led to believe that permanent care arrangements could lead to a little ‘baby drain’, but for Linda, it’s the opposite. “I have a wonderfully rich and totally fulfilling relationship with my grandchildren who are 2.5 and 4 years old,” Linda says. “I now have them both for two full days a week plus extra when needed. They are happy to stay over at my house and often ask for me and we talk on the phone. I feel that I am as special to them as they are to me.”

And when it comes to Linda’s relationship with her daughter, there isn’t a hint of resentment or tension. “My daughter encourages our special relationship and I feel it has enriched our relationship too,” Linda says. “She completely trusts me with them and she can totally relax when they are with me, whether she is with us or not.”

My final question for Linda was whether she gets tired looking after her young grandchildren because despite being three decades younger, when it comes to 4pm with my own two babies, I’m about ready to call it a day. “I am 67 now and I do feel tired at the end of the day, especially the second day. But I go to bed happy,” she says.

The impact of affordable – or indeed, free – childcare can be the deciding factor when it comes to returning to work vs staying at home or leaning into a career vs taking a step back.

In metropolitan Sydney, the cost of daycare sits at approximately $160 per day. With two children attending five days per week, that comes to $83,200 – after tax. Of course, government subsidies do help some families, but by no means all.

Let’s also not forget about the strict hours of childcare, which can cut a corporate employee’s day dramatically short to make it to pick-up. Unfortunately, even in today’s seemingly progressive workplaces, walking out the door at 5pm can inhibit a woman’s ability to be considered ‘completely focused’ on her career (even though these women so often jump straight back online when their children are in bed).

While these considerations are universally difficult, having a grandparent who is willing and able to assist in sharing the load can be a complete game changer.

The Parent

Rachel* is a senior executive at one of Sydney’s top private schools, whose mother has been a valuable lifeline in the days, months and years since her children arrived. “Unfortunately, when I first went back to work, I had no choice but to go back full time,” she said. “I was so thankful that I had my mum to lean on as I just wasn’t ready to hand my little baby over to a stranger in an institution. Mum and I had spent a lot of time together with my baby before I went back to work. She was my ‘right hand man’ and she knew our schedule so it felt so right to leave him with her until I felt more comfortable about him attending a day care.”

The arrangement came about organically and – pleasingly – worked beautifully for both Rachel and her mother. “Mum had indicated (strongly) that looking after my children was something she wanted to do to help us,” Rachel said. “I wasn’t sure about logistics but that all kind of fell into place. Mum had planned this – she had retired in time to enjoy a bit of time to herself and when her first grandchild came along she was more than ready!”

Rachel is the first to admit that her mother’s help has been instrumental in helping her family to survive and thrive in Sydney’s incredibly expensive market. And despite Rachel and her husband offering to pay her mother for her time, she has always refused. “We were looking at daycare costing more than our mortgage (which, in Sydney is also ridiculously expensive). It was a huge financial help to us to not only be back at work but to have ‘free daycare’. Mum was also more flexible than the average daycare. She could look after my son when he was sick or if I had a late meeting, she could vary her hours.”

As well as the financial impact to Rachel’s family, the benefits of her mother’s help has also meant that both Rachel and her husband have been able to reach career goals that would otherwise have been unattainable. She says, “Thanks to my mum, I have been able to chase my career dreams. When my babies were 2 and 3, I got a big promotion and was able to say ‘yes’ without fear of the juggle. My husband is currently working on starting his own business which wouldn’t have been possible had we had to pay the exorbitant daycare fees full-time.” 

The icing on the cake for Rachel is that she has seen a beautiful relationship emerge with her children and her mother. “From very early on, my children formed a close bond with my mum which was unique and loving. They have their own very special relationship which can only be built through time spent together,” she says. “There is also a whole realm of education that my children have experienced due to spending time with a different generation. Stories, nursery rhymes and games that I have never even heard of … And craft activities that I’m not game to do.”

While Rachel occasionally feels the familiar pang of mother’s guilt for not spending enough time with her parents or her children, or for asking too much of her mum, this is eased by her mother’s willingness and her children’s happiness. Rachel has also seen her own relationship with her mother grow and evolve since their care arrangement came into place. “Some of my most fond memories are watching my Mum with my children,” she says. “In the early newborn days, I felt comforted and relaxed in her company. She just knew what to do and she helped me so much when I wasn’t confident or I was questioning my own decisions. Now, we get to enjoy the company of our little ones together and trouble shoot the toddler years. I am looking forward to having her help with ‘big kid problems’ in the future!”

In fact, it’s been such a positive experience for Rachel and her family that if her son or daughter ever wanted the same help with their own children in the future, Rachel would be the first to put her hand up to do the same.

It’s not just ‘free childcare’ that grandparents are assisting with. In many cases, Grandparents across the US are making similar calculations. According to the AARP, almost all American grandparents say that they offer some sort of financial support to their grandchildren. This can be in the form of helping pay for their education (53 percent), living expenses (37 percent), or medical bills (23 percent).

In Australia, a study last year found that 55% of Australian couples had asked their parents to fund their children’s private school fees. While they may not all have said “yes,” research by industry super fund Rest revealed that almost one-third of grandparents are planning to draw down on their superannuation to pay for school fees. With annual fees edging toward $40,000 in some top Sydney schools, this is no small contribution, and the benefits of accepting a handout from nan and pop are certainly plentiful.

But for those who don’t have the financial or time-based support of their parents, how does this impact their lives? And are they perhaps sometimes even better off when it comes to their family experience?

The Lone Soldier

Emily* was in marketing when her first child arrived, with her husband working in media sales. “Straight off the bat, I knew that my parents wouldn’t be interested in caring for my baby when I went back to work,” she said. “They’re still quite young themselves, so were somewhat in the heyday of their own careers. And my husband’s parents live overseas, so that option was off the table.”

For Emily and her husband, the cost of day care was a consideration, but not a deal-breaker. The icing on the cake was when Emily discovered that her desire to return to her career dissipated a few months after the birth of her baby. “I felt absolutely no pull back to my corporate life,” she said. “Suddenly, the thought of all those useless meetings made me feel sick to my stomach. Spending my day tied up in those time-sucks – away from my baby – while sending 75% of my after-tax salary to the childcare centre – no thanks.”

As a result, Emily decided to extend her maternity leave to two years (18 months of which were unpaid) and in that time, started doing some freelance work to pay the bills. Almost two years after the birth of her first child, she welcomed her second daughter (just in time to roll over on to a second maternity leave, without needing to return to the office).

“After my second set of maternity leave, I officially resigned from my job as I felt I could generate enough freelance work to sustain us for the foreseeable future,” she said. Emily’s two daughters are now both in daycare two days per week, and she manages her workload on those days and around their sleep patterns.

“Honestly, I’m really pleased that my parents weren’t able to help out,” Emily said. “If they’d offered to look after our girls, I think I would have quickly returned to work because it’s what I know and it’s what I was good at. Not having that as an option really forced us as a family to figure out what was important to us and where we wanted to focus our time and our money. I am always exhausted from managing my own erratic workload and the girls, but I think we all are, right?”

Financially, Emily says they’re bringing in a lot less than they were pre-kids, but it’s likely the same end result as if her children were both attending daycare five days per week. “And I get the benefit of actually spending three solid days per week with them while they’re little. I wouldn’t change that for any sum of money.”

Emily’s own parents, on the other hand, have a great relationship with her daughters, albeit one that remains mainly weekend-focused. “It’s great,” says Emily. “They love spending time with each other because it’s still a novelty. They eat way too many sweets when they’re there, but I keep telling myself that’s what grandparents are for.”

As for my own experience? Despite an enormously supportive network of family and in-laws who were more than happy to babysit on occasion – on a week-to-week basis, day care was our family’s saving grace. The cost and conditions of childcare, however, meant that as a family, we had to make some significant sacrifices. My own working arrangements changed dramatically (in fact, I shifted careers entirely to allow for flexibility) and our combined household income was slashed, but like Emily, I too wouldn’t change our experience for the world. The growth that I’ve seen in my children since their days in care, the relationships they’ve formed, and the way we’ve grown tighter as a family to adjust to this new way of life has been one of our most enormous blessings.

So, what’s the message in all of this, when everyone seems to have a somewhat happy ending? Perhaps it’s that the arrival of children will change our lives irrevocably. And whichever way we choose to swing our care arrangements, or whichever cards we are dealt in this parenting marathon, we all make them work. Because if there’s one thing that seems to ring true when it comes to parenting, it’s that there’s no one right way to raise a family, and that we are all doing our very best. Whether that’s with the help of grandparents, the assistance of educators, or simply the knowledge that our lives are infinitely richer thanks to the presence of these precious jewels we call our children.