We hear a lot about younger mothers juggling work and kids (though not enough about younger dads doing it, if you ask me). But what about grandmothers juggling work and grandkids?
That’s become a serious challenge, too, and it’s the heart of the fascinating, if disconcerting, book, Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Families and Jobs, by Madonna Harrington Meyer, chair of the sociology department at Syracuse University.
“People have an image of a grandmother in an apron and a rolling pin,” Meyer told me. “But grandmother has a briefcase and a laptop. She put down her rolling pin decades ago.”
One woman said: ‘I wish I could be doing more grandmothering and less mothering.'
— Madonna Harrington Meyer
I met Meyer recently when I moderated the Women Working Longer panel she was on at the Work and Family Researchers Network conference in Washington, D.C. That’s where Meyer described the results of her book’s interviews with 48 women who were employed and cared for grandchildren (none were custodial grandmothers who were legal guardians of the kids).
The Push-Pull That Grandmothers Face
The results intrigued me so much, I subsequently read her book and interviewed her to learn more about the push-pull so many grandmothers face today.
Lesley Stahl also dug into the time and money that working grandmothers spend on their grandkids in Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting, which Next Avenue recently excerpted. Stahl wrote: “You could say working grandparents are a brood of spring chickens, afraid if they retire they’ll be bored or feel they were benched.”
In my earlier interview with Lori Bitter, author of The Grandparent Economy, she said “now there’s much more day-to-day spending [by grandparents for grandkids] on things you wouldn’t expect: Car insurance, help with school clothes and school supplies.” And, Bitter added, some grandparents are overdoing it to their own detriment. In her survey, she said “the sacrificing that grandparents make for their grandchildren, across economic lines, was pretty profound.”
Meyer found this in spades among the grandmothers she talked with, and it surprised her. “I had no idea how much giving there was from the older to the younger generations. All but four of the women said they were providing much more support to their grown children than their parents did and that they were expected to,” she said.
Why Grandmothers Are Providing So Much Support
“There’s a complicated set of answers,” Meyer said.
For one, “employers aren’t required to provide paid vacations, paid sick leave or paid parental leave. So what are you supposed to do when your child is sick or there’s a snow day or school is closed? You have to turn to somebody for help, and if you have a low-paying job and can’t afford day care, you turn to grandma.”
For another, Meyer said, just as high expectations are placed on working mothers as moms today, working grandmothers feel similar pressure.
“They are doing nearly everything. They’re getting the grandkids on and off the bus, taking them to speech therapy or flute practice and doctor’s appointments, feeding them, helping them with homework and tucking them in at night,” she said. “One woman said: ‘I wish I could be doing more grandmothering and less mothering.’”
Meyer also found many of the grandmothers were willing to let their grown kids struggle, but not their grandkids. “They were comfortable letting the adult children learn from the school of hard knocks. They didn’t care if they had clothes or electricity, but they didn’t want the grandchildren to suffer.”
Switching Jobs for Flexible Hours
I was surprised to learn how many of the grandmothers Meyer talked to either had jobs with the flexibility to take off for grandparenting duties or switched to jobs that offered that.
“Some had jobs with health insurance, pensions and paid vacations and gave them up for jobs where they could define their hours and be available on days when schools were closed,” she said. “Some gave up jobs with more financial security for more scheduling flexibility.”
Meyer also heard about a kind of grandmother sisterhood in some offices, where one would quietly cover for another who had urgent grandchild caregiving needs. “It was ‘you go to the ballgame and I’ll go to the recital,’” she said.
In other cases, the grandmothers found clever ways to provide caregiving while still working. “Some would reroute their office phones to their cellphones,” said Meyer.
The most difficult jobs for handling caregiving responsibilities were ones with specific appointment times. By contrast, real estate agents had an easier time of cutting out when necessary.
Dimming Their Retirement Prospects
Sadly, some of the grandmothers were also hurting their prospects for a comfortable retirement in order to divert savings to their grandkids. Yet another nail in the retirement crisis coffin.
“The grandmothers were providing so much financial assistance, they weren’t putting money into their own nest eggs,” said Meyer. “Quite a few had no nest egg at all and quite a few had enormous debt problems. One grandmother hadn’t been to the dentist in eight years. She couldn’t afford to go.”
Meyer told me she saw “a lot of delayed retirement plans” — grandmothers who thought they’d be retired by now or would be in four or five years, but instead now had to wait six to 10 years.
In certain cases, the grandmothers were in denial about how much they spent on their grandchildren. “One said, ‘I don’t give my grandchild any money,’ but she really did.”
What Could Help Grandmothers
I asked Meyer what could help working grandmothers who shoulder grandchild caregiving duties, too.
“The first thing would be to help the parents, so every person had paid sick leave and paid vacation,” she said. “That would make an enormous difference in the ability of parents to juggle their own work and kids and not rely so much on grandparents.” (The Democratic platform from the Democratic National Convention spoke to this: “We will address the conditions that make it hard for workers with unpredictable or inflexible schedules to meet caregiving responsibilities.” The Republican platform didn’t address the issue.)
Two last things: Meyer wanted to be sure you knew that “the No. 1 story in the book is joy.” The grandmothers loved doting on their grandchildren and spending time with them. “They get happy tears just thinking about them,” she said.
And, Meyer told me, she’d like to write a follow-up book on grandfathers. “But there’s no question the bulk of the work of grandparents’ child care is being done by grandmothers,” she noted.
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