Grandparents: the new slaves

More than babysitters for their grandchildren, some seniors have reason to feel like unpaid help

"It's not that we don't want to do it. We're just tired." There's a whole generation of women who, after raising their own children, go back to being part-time moms to their grandchildren. They didn't choose to, nor do they put up a fight. But it's tiring.

Grandparents, especially if they are young, enjoy looking after their grandkids. But some end up becoming more than just that: babysitters, secretaries for their busy kids, taxi drivers... you name it. This is where the abuse begins, especially with grandmothers, who apart from picking the kids up from school, also have to feed them, take them to the doctor, to basketball practice and English lessons. This arrangement doesn't last for two or three years; it can draw out for six, seven or even 10. Grandma gets older, and her body gets tired. In the end, either she learns how to play videogames if her eyesight is still good enough, or she ends up seeing a psychologist. Others turn to the "Hope Line," a service that's starting to get requests for help from overwhelmed grandparents. Some call looking for childrearing advice; others just to let off steam, especially during Christmas or at the end of summer.

"My granddaughter meant I had to quit the choir. I couldn't go to practice"
"Most of them give up everything to take care of their grandchildren"

The phenomenon hasn't been quantified, but it's getting more and more common. "Most of them give up everything to take care of their grandchildren. Their own upbringing and their sense of responsibility makes them internalize that role of 'babysitter grandmas'," says the pediatrician Joaquín Ibarra, author of Mis abuelos me cuidan: Guía para los canguros del siglo XXI (or, My grandparents take care of me: a guide for 21st-century babysitters). "Far from admitting that they can't handle the job, they even justify what their kids are asking. But being 75 years old is not the same as being 60, and taking care of one child is not the same as taking care of three," he adds. Most start out with one, but 26 percent look after two.

There are many young grandparents who look after their grandkids with almost no effort. Águeda and her husband Juan pick the kids up from school, give them a snack and take them to their parents' home, or they stay overnight during the week. Juan is 66, and retired three years ago; Águeda, 61, has always stayed at home. When her only daughter got married, she saw taking care of the grandkids as something natural. Little does it matter that her daughter and son-in-law live in Sanchinarro and they live in Carabanchel, neighborhoods at opposite ends of Madrid.

Cándida Nevado and her husband aren't so young anymore, but they've been looking after their grandkids for years, more as parents than as grandparents. In a way, they've had three children: their own daughter and her two kids. "It's something you don't imagine, but you end up accepting due to the circumstances. It isn't easy; you've got to do everything, from helping them with their homework to feeding them and even scolding them," says this 76-year-old grandma, speaking from her home in Sant Just Desvern in Catalonia. She and her husband took care of their first grandson, who is now 21 years old. "He works and is practically independent," she says. Years later, they looked after their granddaughter, from their daughter's second marriage. Now she is 10 years old, but Cándida was 70 years old at the time, and "at that age, you don't feel like getting down on the floor to play or going to the park... Although you end up doing it," she says.

Cándida and her husband help out voluntarily. It's the arrangement they've reached as a family, as something positive for the kids. "There are things that make it worth it: they way they look at you, how happy they are... My granddaughter talks a lot, like me, so she keeps me more than entertained."

A few years ago, Cándida Nevado attended the workshop for grandparents organized by CatalunyaCaixa savings bank. There, she shared experiences with other seniors in similar situations. "Grandparents help out," says Nevado, "but almost everything falls to us. I'd like to enjoy these tasks more, like some younger grandmothers do. But you're at an age when you feel like doing things that you couldn't do when you were young, and this new responsibility keeps you from doing them," she says. "When my granddaughter was little, I had to quit the Club San Jordi Choir. I couldn't go to practice."

Raising children may be the parents' responsibility, but often they don't have the time. What's more, kids who are alone aren't as happy. "Unfortunately, there's no way to recover the time that parents can't spend with their children when they're young. In such cases, grandparents have no choice but to be not only grandparents, but also, to some extent, parents," says pediatrician Joaquín Ibarra. But do some parents go too far? "It depends on the family. Many children benefit from the family not having to pay a babysitter."

To be sure, some grandparents are a real bargain. There are those who offer to do everything. Whether it is because it makes them feel useful or because they're looking for a second chance and want to make up for the time they couldn't spend with their own kids, they're fueling a dangerous trend: the idea that all grandparents want - and are able - to take care of their grandchildren. This clashes with another trend that gathered momentum at the end of the 20th century: women's liberation from domestic ties as their children grow up and become independent.

Some of these grandmas, now around the age of 60, are still working or about to retire. They're active women with a rich social life and the desire to travel. They value the fact that young couples are more egalitarian (though there is still a long way to go). When they got married, they had to work their fingers to the bone to raise their kids, with husbands who barely helped. This doesn't mean they don't cooperate: if their kids or grandparents need them and they're available, they help out the family like any other grandmother. But it's occasional help, not an obligation.

Most kids whose grandparents take care of them have working mothers. When the mother doesn't work, on the other hand, only one out of four children under the age of three goes to nursery school, according to a 2009 study conducted by the National Statistics Institute. Likewise, more educated women are the ones most likely to take their kids to daycare. And 32 percent of kids under the age of three with working moms are cared for by others. Although no distinction is made between whether this service is remunerated or not, Lourdes Pérez Ortiz, professor of sociology at Madrid's Autónoma University, attributes this care, in part, to grandparents. Pérez thinks that relying on grandparents is more widespread than it seems. In a 2003 study, she found that families didn't always turn to grandparents for financial reasons, but because they didn't trust the daycare centers or didn't want to leave 12- and 13-year-olds alone in the afternoon after school.

And so, there is a tacit agreement among women: the old take care of the kids so the young can work. If there weren't any grandmas, many women would think even harder about being mothers. Some families pay these grandparents a certain amount as a complement to their pensions. But in other cases, the grandparents don't receive a cent: 11 percent also feed their grandchildren. Individually they don't complain, but there are associations that are starting to do it on their behalf. According to Francisco Muñoz, president of the Spanish Association of Grandmothers and Grandfathers, "We try to convince our members that grandparents should only help when necessary. They're not slaves; there is a lot of abuse."

For some grandparents, taking care of their grandchildren is the next step after taking care of their own kids.
For some grandparents, taking care of their grandchildren is the next step after taking care of their own kids.SANTI BURGOS

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