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When Grandparents Provide Child Care, Communication is Essential

Watching your grandchildren can be rewarding, but here are things to keep in mind before making the commitment

By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

When Kevin and Amy Pieper's daughter, Terra Ippolito, found out she was pregnant 18 months ago, she started investigating child care options. Ippolito and her husband, Jake, found a day care they liked and were put on the waiting list.

A grandparent with his granchild on his lap playing the piano. Next Avenue, grandparenting, grandparents child care
Kevin Pieper and his granddaughter Juniper  |  Credit: Kevin Pieper

When their daughter Juniper was born, the couple was still on the day care's waiting list, so they asked Kevin and Amy to help. There was one problem: The Piepers live in Henderson, Ark. and Ippolito and her family live more than 2 ½ hours away in Fayetteville, Ark.

"I casually asked once if they were still looking [for child care] and that's when they found someplace else."

Kevin, 62, is a semi-retired photographer and Amy, 55, just recently left her job. The couple split days driving to Fayetteville for the four days a week Juniper needed care and then started alternating weeks.

"I would go there Sunday night through Thursday one week, and Amy would go the next," explains Kevin. "There are things we want to do now we're retired. We initially sat down and put a time limit on the arrangement. I casually asked once if they were still looking [for child care] and that's when they found someplace else."

Kevin said he and Amy both bonded in a way with their only grandchild they wouldn't have otherwise. "We would read to her, play music and sing songs, it was really special," he says.

Caring for Grandchildren Offers Many Rewards

Kevin says they have no regrets for the time they spent with Juniper, except he says he "kind of wishes" they hadn't quit.

"I looked forward to it and kind of felt guilty for saying anything," says Kevin. "We fell deeper in love with (Juniper). Yeah, I kind of felt burned out toward the end [of each week], but was always so glad when I got there."

There really aren't good statistics indicating how many American families rely on grandparents to provide full-time child care, but some reports estimate up to 30%.

"It's only about the last fifty years that the nuclear family became the norm," says Megan Carolan, vice president of research for the Institute for Child Services in Greenville, S.C. "Prior to that, most households were multi-generational. There's a reason we say, 'it takes a village.'"

Carolan says there are many reasons more grandparents are watching grandchildren full time, including day care shortages, as well as parents feeling more comfortable with trusting their children — especially babies — to family members.

Carolan relies on her mother and mother-in-law, both of whom want to be involved in helping with child care. One of Carolan's children is now in school, and the other child is 10 months. She also has outside day care for two days, which Carolan believes helps her children adjust to being away from family and develop broader social skills.

Her mother, Peg Carolan, 70, commits to four days a week with her grandchildren, one of whom is her son's child.

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"I was recently forced into retirement, and it gives me a purpose and a whole other outlook on life," she says. "As long as I'm able and my children will let me, I plan on watching [my grandchildren] until they start school."

When Providing Child Care Gets to Be Too Much

When Mike, 62, and Charlotte, 61, (who asked not to use their last name) heard they were having their second grandchild, they were thrilled. When they made the decision to step in and help with child care when their daughter's family was placed on a waiting list for a day care, they didn't know the toll it would take on their lives.

The couple lives south of Kansas City, Mo. and their daughter lives with her family 1,200 miles away. Mike and Charlotte made a four-month commitment, spent $7,000 to prepare their truck and recreational vehicle for the trip, and booked a campsite at $1,000 per month.

The trip took the couple, and their three cats, five days, as Mike suffers from severe back pain and other health issues.

"I'm sure every young mother struggles with day care right now and we're happy to help, my parents helped us when we were young — it brings back the parental instincts," says Mike. "I worry about the kids when they don't have family to help bail them out."

"We watched the baby eight hours a day, five days a week, and we were just too tired to do anything on the weekends."

However, the winter has taken a toll on the couple and their older cats, two of which are diabetic.

"We watched the baby eight hours a day, five days a week, and we were just too tired to do anything on the weekends," said Mike. "They live near an airbase and that makes the cats nervous, and their routines were upset. Our pets aren't more important than our kids, but our animals are part of our lives."

Megan Carolan says if the arrangement presents hardships or doesn't work, it's important to keep lines of communication open.

"It's different having grandparents in your home full time or overnight than just having them over for a visit," says Carolan. "It's a wonderful thing, but it's like a puzzle and one piece can make it topple and complicate family dynamics."

3 Tips for Creating a Successful Child Care Arrangement

Brent Metcalf of Tri-Star Counseling in Johnson City, Tenn., offers these tips for people considering babysitting their grandchildren full time:

Be fully on board. Metcalf says as we age, we enter the Ego Integrity vs. Despair stage of life. "If we've accomplished everything we wanted, our ego integrity is intact; if we didn't, it could lead to despair," he says.

Metcalf says to evaluate your goals for retirement. "If watching the grandkids full time would fulfill you, do it. If not, that must be OK. Maybe you want to do other things and can watch them part time, but make sure to set those boundaries. Make sure you're really being fulfilled."  

Keep the lines of communication open. Conversations should always include what's expected of you and how long you will be with the children per day. It's also important to discuss parenting styles.

"Grandparents tend to want to be grandparents and spoil the grandkids and send them home, so to speak," he said. "This could lead to big problems between the grandparents and parents and even the parents and children, who say, 'Grandma lets me do this!'"

Know your limitations. If you have physical or other limitations that impact you, or limit how much time you can spend with your grandchildren, be open about this.

Metcalf says the most important thing is to make sure your needs are being fulfilled in the child care arrangement, otherwise you, as well as your family relationships, may suffer.

Photograph of Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a full time freelance writer and author living in the Ozark Mountains. She is the founder and administrator for the public Facebook page, Years of Light: Living Large in Widowhood and a private Facebook group, Finding Myself After Losing My Spouse, dedicated to helping widows/widowers move forward. Read More
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