Taking Granny for Granted


                                                                    Author Jessica Norrie

                                                                 discusses whether it is fair

                                                                     to use grandparents

                                                                   as unpaid childminders.

                                                                    Here are her thoughts...

Back in 2016, The Sunday Times reported that parents 

with two preschool children need earnings of £40,000

to break even after living costs. So should their parents

help by providing free childcare? I’ve written of fictional

grandparents doing just that in my latest book,

The Magic Carpet.

I have no grandchildren myself (in another story, one of my

children currently excludes it, with the world so threatened

by  climate change). I asked friends about the reality

and received many heart-warming responses:

"We have an amazing bond. It’s lovely watching her develop and grow…"

"I love to be placed in a position of such trust. I don’t expect payment of any kind – except the odd nice gesture…"

"Paid? No, we’re family and do everything we can to support

loving relationships…"

"I'm glad I had both the opportunity and the inclination. I couldn’t imagine

not offering to help given the cost of everything (and how delightful he is!)…"

"What I do is not work. He makes me happy and I’d be upset if I couldn’t be

part of his life."

How blissful! But notes of caution follow:

"We love to hand her back to her parents!"

"We have an agreement we can still go on holiday…"(suggesting this can be hard to negotiate?)"

"Perhaps it has reduced the number of times I’d volunteer to babysit."

"Two days a week was a bit knackering…"

"Having two of us makes it manageable as it’s very tiring in your sixties."

"I wouldn’t expect payment. However, if my partner didn’t work or I received no pension, it might be different."

"It won’t arise. I'll be working to about 75 anyway the way pensions are going!" 

"I’ve done my time as a single mum. Happy to help with evenings etc or if they want a weekend away, but not regular childcare!"

"Love looking after them when we can but always told our own children we didn’t want to be childminders for our grandchildren. We wanted time to do things we couldn’t when we were younger …. Hope that doesn’t make me seem hard-hearted – I do love them all so much."

The responses from parents of school age children varied, as did the sense of entitlement:

 "His mum tells us looking after his niece is frankly exhausting, so we feel unable to ask for the occasional favour for ours."

A single parent nursery nurse told me:

"I paid mum although she never asked. She’d done it all before... I didn't feel it was fair."

Yet a high flier professional commented:

 "Most people I know just prefer to spend the money on something more fun, frankly. I’m quite stunned how many of our friends take it for granted they can get a free day or even two a week off their parents."

Like the nursery nurse, others who’ve worked with children think it deserves payment. One formidable retired head privately messaged that without her job title and school rules to keep them in check, she deserved “danger money” for trying to control her “monster” grandsons two days a week. The people I’ve quoted are mostly (not all) healthy couples with incomes ranging from adequate to high and the grandfathers play an active role. None care for grandchildren more than three days a week. But what happens when a grandparent is alone, ill, poor, still working or simply feels they can’t say no? My mother couldn’t care for her younger grandchildren due to worsening Parkinson’s disease; a friend’s was still paying off a mortgage so unwaged working was an unaffordable luxury. Even twenty years ago, both felt (needlessly) they should apologise. The emotional pressures are even greater now, amid media narratives emphasising “selfish” baby boomers and “hard done by” millennials. 

A GP told me of grandparents looking after grandchildren under a Special Guardianship Order. "That’s tough on everyone and they do it for free and have no support, with a massive rise recently to stop children going into care. An Educational Psychologist agreed: Constant themes include health needs of one or both grandparents…worry about the near future when they’re too old to do the job well, money worries as they’re so often forced to take premature retirement, and relationship strain or break up. The children…are often quite challenging…because of adverse early life experiences."


It’s clear payment is by no means the only concern. If you are a “kinship carer”, there is help, information and advice at www.grandparentsplus.org.uk. For example, you may be able to claim a Special Guardianship Allowance, at your Local Authority’s discretion and if you pass the means test.

In The Magic Carpet, the childcare provided by the grandparents is unpaid. Actually, the grandmother does most. She and her husband live in the London home of their working son and daughter-in-law and grandsons. The family assets and earnings are pooled, covering housing, food, maintenance etc for all three generations. But there’s nothing planned about the presence of the other grandparents in the story, who arrive from Leicester to look after their grandchildren in response to a crisis. How long they’ll stay, their responsibilities and influence and whether they have the necessary energy are all points of tension in the story, against the background of a household where we know finances are already over committed. Payment won’t come into it.

I’ll end with my own grandmother. In her sixties, she undertook bringing up my cousin after his mother

died when he was four. I don’t know if any money changed hands, though nowadays the Guardianship Allowance would apply. A decade later she had us for weeks every year when our parents travelled. Gran had the patience of a saint and gets a posthumous reward in that thirty-five years after her death our memories of her remain vivid and loving. If nothing else she earned some immortality – at least as long as I’m here to remember.   

©Jessica Norrie 2019

Jessica Norrie was born in London and studied French Literature and Education at Sussex and Sheffield. Before retirement she taught English, French and Spanish abroad and in the UK in settings ranging from nursery to university. She has two adult children and divides her time between London and Malvern, Worcestershire. She has also worked as a freelance translator, published occasional journalism and a French textbook, and blogs at https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com .Jessica sings soprano with any choir that will have her, and has been trying to master the piano since childhood but it’s not her forte.
The Infinity Pool (2015)  was her first novel, drawing on encounters while travelling. Her second novel The Magic Carpet is inspired by working with families and their children. The third is bubbling away nicely and should emerge from her cauldron next year. 

You can find out more about Jessica's writing by clicking on the links below.

Blog: https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wordsandfictions/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jessica_norrie

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