Recycled parents

It used to be said that the joy of grandchildren was being able to give them back but today, increasing numbers of grandparents are doing just the opposite and taking responsibility for their children’s children on a regular part–time and sometimes full-time, basis.

Some are very happy to do this, especially the empty-nesters who see it as being given a second chance to raise children and do it better, with the assurance of experience and without the worry of building careers and incomes.

Others do it because they have no choice.

Mo and Henk Houtkamp look after their two grandchildren aged 16 months and three years, five days a week and love every minute of it.

“It keeps us young,” Mo says.

Denise M. (full name withheld) agrees.  She is 74, never worked outside the home and now looks after her three grandchildren during school holidays, and sometimes after school and at weekends so her daughter and partner can enjoy time away together.  

“I always wanted a career but wasn’t able to have one because there was no ‘nanna’ to help me raise my kids. I wanted my daughter to feel free to have both,” Denise says.

“She has a very responsible job with lots of stress and just doesn’t always have the time she needs for the kids.

She’s a very caring and conscientious mother and I’m proud I can step in when needed and help take the load”.  

For these recycled parents, it may be comforting to know that scientists at the University of California, have discovered what they call the “grandparent gene”, which indicates that humans have specifically evolved so that older people can care for grandchildren and pass on wisdom to future generations.

Others, however, still defiantly buck the trend, gleefully announcing their independence by posting signs on the back of caravans proclaiming they are “Escaping the grandchildren”.  

“I think my son thought that’s what we were doing,” says Trish Wadman who, with husband Paul, has recently moved from Melbourne to a beach suburb north of Brisbane.  

“But really, it was the cold winters and bushfire summers that we were escaping.  I love my grandchildren and look forward to their visits once or twice a year, but I don’t consider it my responsibility to bring them up.  Or even babysit on demand as some of my friends do.  

“I was a stay-at-home mum as most of us were in those days (Trish is in her late 60s); we put our children first and our careers and material possessions second.  

“My daughter-in-law chooses to work and that’s her choice. She finds it hard to get good child care but Paul and I are loving our retirement and raising one set of kids was quite enough!”

Trish says she feels like Maggie, as played by acerbic British actress Penelope Keith in the British comedy Next of Kin, who, when faced with the prospect of raising three grandchildren, cries frantically: “I know what my duty is but I just never expected to have to have another go at it and I don’t want one!”

The word “grandparent” retains a cosy image of a rosy-cheeked old woman baking biscuits while her kindly white-haired husband whittles wood and dispenses wisdom to his younger kin.

The Baby Boomer nannas and poppys, however, are likely to be wearing jeans and texting on their smartphones while rushing from yoga class to the golf course.  That’s if they are not still working. Yet, a surprisingly high number appear ready, willing and able to go beyond a bit of occasional babysitting and become either part- or full-time surrogate parents. Usually because they have no choice.  

Fran Stone has raised her 10-year-old grandson from birth after her daughter and partner decided not to abort the unwanted pregnancy, but instead to have him adopted.  

After visiting the baby in hospital Fran says: “I just fell in love with him” and she and her husband decided to take responsibility for him, both legally and financially.  Fran soon realised the baby was “different” and he was later diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

Coping has not always been easy but never, she says, since one early moment of doubt, has she regretted it and says that raising an autistic child “doesn’t get any easier, it just gets different”.  

The Stones have never had a holiday away from their grandson and as both have jobs, they find they get very little time alone together.  

“Disability really tests relationships,” Fran says.  

Being a surrogate parent can be a bit lonely, too, because you are a generation older than other mothers (Fran is now 55) and therefore “don’t get invited for coffee”.  

Friends your own age don’t necessarily want an active child around.  

Fran strongly recommends that grandparents raising grandchildren seek as much support as possible from organisations such as Time for Grandparents.

It offers a range of programs including “grandfamily” recreational camps where grandparents get to share their experiences and problems and children learn they are not alone in being raised by their parents’ parents – which Fran says can be quite important.  

Her only worry now is what will happen to her grandson when she and her husband are older, but she’s hopeful that he will one day be able to lead an independent life.

During the past 30 years, changes in family structure and social conditions have led to a marked increase in the number of children being raised by grandparents, due primarily to the inability of parents to effectively meet their responsibilities.  

It is impossible to know the exact number because statistics only take into account those children considered officially at risk and don’t include the many thousands being cared for by grandparents through an informal family arrangement.  

Researcher at the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University, Dr Jan Backhouse, says Australia is following the international trend towards placing children at risk into “kinship care” rather than foster care.

Dr Backhouse, fond grandmother of 12 grandchildren and NSW Grandparents Day Ambassador, is now writing a book based on her doctoral thesis: Grandparents raising their grandchildren: An uneasy position.

She interviewed 34 sets of grandparents and says their stories were about “endurance, great hardship and great love”.

Reasons for becoming surrogate parents ranged from the death or illness of their children to domestic violence and child abuse.  

Not surprisingly, substance abuse was a major factor in the majority of cases – a problem of our times.

Grandparents who step in to save their grandchildren from inadequate parenting often make considerable sacrifices in terms of income, time and their own primary relationships.  

Too often they don’t understand the social and legal ramifications and find themselves in the precarious position of having responsibility without adequate authority to make decisions about their grandchildren’s health, schooling and future well-being.  

According to Backhouse’s report, government support is generally inadequate and confusing because of the number of agencies involved.

The good news is that grandparents caring for grandchildren are not entirely alone.  

Support groups are available as well as government financial assistance such as the Grandparent Child Care Benefit.

It’s important, as Fran Stone points out, to check out your rights and legal entitlements even if your family arrangement is informal and amicable.  

Useful websites and phone numbers, or dial 1300 131 500, Grandparent Adviser Line 1800 245 965, Time for Grandparents 1300 135 500.