Being Grandma, Not the Babysitter

The drain pipe under the sink started dripping, so I put a bucket there to catch the water. I was busy and didn't take time to actually fix the leak. Day by day the drip got worse. The longer I ignored the problem, the more quickly water accumulated in the bucket.

Stepping in to help

Some grandparents find themselves in the same position as a bucket under a sink, used to catch the 'drips' in a son's or daughter's household. When the adult child's work schedule changes, mom or dad can be counted on to pick up the grand-kids after school for the foreseeable future. When the grandchild has an inconveniently scheduled after-school activity, grandpa or grandma can help. If there's a mid-day medical appointment, perhaps grandma can retrieve the child from school. If parents want a regular night out without kids, the grandparents can always babysit. 

What starts as an occasional request can gradually turn into steady reliance on grandpa and grandma to be on call around the clock. If you are a grandparent who feels like a bucket under the sink--constantly having to 'catch' the grandchildren because adult sons or daughters have neglected the leaky plumbing of their schedule, consider making changes that will return you to a more balanced and healthy role.

Taken for granted

Julie is one grandparent who found herself being used more and more for childcare by her son and daughter-in-law. A widow, Julie took a leave of absence a year ago because of medical problems. As her medical condition improved, Ryan and Melody, her son and daughter-in-law, begin calling occasionally to ask for help when there were problems with after-school care for Jacob and Hannah, their two children. Julie was happy at first for the chance to spend time with the grand-kids. The calls became more and more frequent, though. Melody was offered overtime and will be home late today. Could Julie run over and help out? Hannah wouldn't be able to participate in soccer this year unless Julie could bring her to her games every Thursday. Ryan and Melody want a weekend away without the kids every few months, and assumed Julie would take them for a couple days when they made reservations.  Little by little, Julie became not so much the backup in case of a last-minute cancellation or sudden illness but an assumed resource whenever Ryan and Melody had a childcare need. And Ryan and Melody gradually expressed less thanks and came to expect that Julie would be available whenever they wanted help. "It's like they think I have no life of my own and should always drop things and come when they call," said Julie. "I love my grand-kids, but I don't like having them forced on me." 

Serve, but don't enable

Grandparents should be actively involved in the lives of their grandchildren as proximity permits, and that requires time invested the relationships. A grandparent's goal is to become a vital part of a grandchild's life, not just a nice acquaintance kids see on holidays. Young families are notoriously busy, and grandparents can bless their children with the gift of childcare. But there's a gray area from investing as a family support to enabling parents to over-commit, fail to plan, or check-out themselves. 

Bridging the divide

If you are a parent whose mom or dad sometimes cares for your children: 

  • Remember not to take their help for granted. Unless your parent has expressed a desire to frequently serve as a caregiver, work hard to develop other resources for childcare and don't rely on family as the solution for all your childcare needs.
  • Plan ahead, and ask in advance. Life always has surprises, but plan a clear schedule and ask for help when everyone has time to prepare. 
  • Be sure to request (not expect or demand) grandparent's help, and accept without question if a grandparent says 'no' to your request. 
  • Remember that your parents do have their own lives and be grateful when they put whatever they were doing aside in order to help.

If you are a grandparent who is called on too much or whose help is taken for granted, consider doing the following:

  • Talk to your adult child (and his/her spouse) about the issue, describing how you'd appreciate requests well in advance.
  • Set limits on when you're available (for example, "I volunteer on Tuesdays so I'm not available then") and, except for unforeseeable emergencies, stick to them.
  • Make it clear what you would like in return for helping--at minimum, appreciation, but perhaps also tangible help--rides, gas money, handyman services at your house, shopping--anything that they could do that would make your life easier in mutual support.

Love with limits

In our individualistic culture in which children increasingly report feeling alone in the world, three-generation families that work closely together are a blessing. Grandparents should be involved. Having a relationship of mutual love and service towards one another is the Biblical ideal (I John 4:7, Gal 5:13), and is the healthiest way that families, including three-generation families, can relate to each other. Be sympathetic to your adult children's needs and willing to assist (I Peter 3:8). This does not mean you should help all the time or regardless of the circumstances, though. Withhold help when others take advantage (2 Cor. 3:10). 

If you are becoming like the bucket under the sink--relied on to be there not so much to solve the underlying problem but to limp along without addressing it--consider setting limits on what you agree to do. In the end, everyone will benefit if you refuse to allow taking care of grand-kids to eclipse all other aspects of your life.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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