Poll: Do working mums rely too heavily on grandparents to provide childcare?

Grandparents Sue and Liam McGrath looking after Matilda (4), Florence (2) and Elizabeth (7months) Dodd. Grandparents Sue and Liam McGrath looking after Matilda (4), Florence (2) and Elizabeth (7months) Dodd.

Saturday, May 3, 2014
2:00 PM

For so many working families across Suffolk, the childcare provided by grandparents is invaluable. It is estimated that three in five grandparents look after their grandchildren on a regular basis, saving nearly £11billion a year in childcare costs.

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Grandparents Sue and Liam McGrath looking after Matilda (4), Florence (2) and Elizabeth (7months) Dodd.
Sue and Liam with Elizabeth.Grandparents Sue and Liam McGrath looking after Matilda (4), Florence (2) and Elizabeth (7months) Dodd. Sue and Liam with Elizabeth.

Suffolk grandparents Sue and Liam McGrath (Gran and Happy Dad) care for their daughter’s children − Matilda, four, Florence, two, and Elizabeth, seven months − two days a week. Supergran Sue says that she honestly wouldn’t have it any other way − although she does occasionally fantasise about moving to New Zealand!

Here Sue tells her story.

My grandchildren make me deliriously happy. I mean that in the sincerest way. But since their arrival, my husband and I sometimes fantasise about moving to a remote croft in New Zealand!

We have only one child, and as her husband recently lost his mum to cancer, we are the sole carers for our grandchildren while my daughter and son-in-law both work.

We look after the three children for two consecutive days a week – about 20 hours – and whilst childcare hasn’t taken over our lives, it does sometimes feel like we have a part-time job.

Our day starts around 6.30am. We need to be at our daughter’s house in Ipswich by 8am, so we can briefly see her before she flies off to work. It’s then a bit of mad dash to get the oldest looking reasonable, including a battle over hair brushing, before I drive her to nursery for 9am. When I get home, there is normally a little peace and quiet for a cup of coffee, whilst the baby has her morning sleep and the middle daughter enjoys some doting attention from “Happy Dad”.

From there our day revolves around fetching juice and snacks, rearranging the position of the baby (walker, floor, lap, etc), building Lego towers, knocking down Lego towers, rebuilding Lego towers, reading stories, drawing, picking tiny bits of Play-Doh from the carpet – you know the drill.

It’s not that the day is overly stressful, but at my age you notice your joints more. Getting up from the carpet takes time.

I will also sort a few loads of washing for my daughter and I quite often bring them a dinner for the evening, like a shepherd’s pie. Most days we’ll walk the dogs or visit the park in the afternoon.

By four, I collect the oldest from nursery. She is a little whirlwind, upsetting the equilibrium when she comes in – so I make the two oldest a banana sandwich to keep the peace whilst I do dinner.

I admit to clockwatching by this stage, as little (and old) tempers fray, and I look forward to being relieved of my “duties”.

By the time my son-in-law is home, between 5.30pm to 6pm, our belongings are usually waiting at the front door. It’s a 40-minute drive, after which I make us dinner, and then usually nod off in front of the television.

Our second day of childcare is as full-on as the first. I enjoy taking the two littlest girls to a local playgroup, where I meet other childminding grannies – some of whom have become good friends. It’s evident by the number of grandparents there just how reliant other families are on their parents. Go to the park mid-week and you’ll be surprised how many people over 50 are looking after tiny children.

I have friends who do many more hours than Liam and I, including regular babysitting over the weekend so the parents can go out. Luckily, my daughter is “sensible” enough not to ask for weekend help very often. Only one of my friends was firm enough, or brave enough, to declare from the start that while she was happy for her grandchildren to stay from time to time, she had absolutely no intention of being regularly involved.

I guess we sit somewhere in the middle – and we’re happy with the hours we do. We certainly couldn’t do more. It’s fair to say we are both shattered after two days.

I admit to feeling a little sad that we don’t see our daughter as much as we would like. In the week, it’s a hurried conversation at a million-miles-an-hour on the particulars of the day ahead.

Sometimes when she asks to visit with the children at the end of the week, I feel guilty about saying no.

Some weeks, two days is all we can handle. Other weeks, I’m delighted when they all come to visit.

I also have to stop myself offering a regular Sunday roast because it would mean we would entertain the children for three days in a row. I’m guessing most grandparents who help with childcare feel the same.

My daughter is grateful for the help we give her. She loves her job, and simply couldn’t afford childcare for three children. I joke that one day we’ll send an invoice for the thousands of pounds they owe us!

When she announced she was pregnant with her third baby – which extended our “duties” for a further three years – we did debate the possibilities of finding a childminder for one day a week.

But why would I agree to have my grandchildren cared for by a stranger?

The truth is I enjoy it, however exasperating it can be. I love my girls’ ferocious hugs and gleeful dancing. They make me laugh. They make me giddy with affection. They make me ache inside when I haven’t seen them for a few days.

It’s a precious relationship, and one that has blossomed because of the hours we share.

I understand these first few years will fly by and it won’t be long until I’m sharing empty nest syndrome with my daughter once they start school. Then where will we be?

We’ll have endless hours to potter in the garden, relax with a Sudoku or do lunch at John Lewis – or, quite probably, we’ll be called upon to do the school runs!

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