Grandmothers mothering: what works, what doesn’t


The number of older adults, especially women, taking care of their children’s children has grown considerably in recent years, but the pandemic, and the closing of schools and daycares, has sent that number skyrocketing. Grandparents can range in age from their late 30s to well into their 70s and beyond. Reasons for caregiving vary, and results differ, but one thing seems true: grandmothers make great caregivers.  

I’ve become interested in the issue of grandmothering, because I have a 7-month old grandson, and when his parents’ caregiver resigned, I was called in as live-in help. At 8:30 each morning, I would “pick up” the child from his mother, who would retreat to her home office to work and not emerge until 5:30 or 6:00. 

My first day on the job was exhausting. Holding him, carrying him around, putting him down for naps, consoling him when he was upset, warming bottles of milk and spoon-feeding mashed sweet potatoes, spinach, pear, and apples, playing with him, helping him to begin to learn basic skills like stacking or recognize words like “nose” were just a few of my jobs. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it the next day, let alone for the entire week and the next.

But in a couple of days, we found our rhythm. I learned to do my own work—yoga, writing, other self-care, as well as some cooking and laundry—as much as I could during nap times, so I could be fully present when he was awake. 

I learned that grandmothering, while richly rewarding, is not for sissies. 

I talked with Kathy Johnson, grandmother of four, two of whom live near her, who, when the oldest local grandchild was born, agreed to balance her own part-time job as a church administrator with part-time daycare. She traded Mondays, Tuesdays, and every other Friday with her grandson’s other local grandparents, full days while the parents were at work. 

“When my children were young, we lived in Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. We didn’t have grandparents nearby, so we had to use outside help. I know how hard that was, and I wanted to be as helpful as possible for my own grandchildren,” Kathy tells me. 

“And I’ve loved it.”  

But there are drawbacks, she admits. First is energy. “Carrying that heavy car seat around. Just keeping up. And there are health issues. I’ve had to take an extra day sometimes because the other grandparents had something going on. And they’ve taken days for me when I had conflicts. We’re lucky that we can work it out and share responsibility.”

Suzanne Miller, who has been doing part-time care since the birth of her last grandchild, feels similarly. She was living overseas when her first and second grandchildren were born and was only able to see the children a couple of times a year. 

“It’s all positive,” she says. She kept her now almost 3-year-old every other day at first, swapping with the other grandparents. As the child has grown and situations and needs have changed, she’s able to be available for care as needed. “[I] still believe if we’d been grandparents first, our parenting skills would have been much better,” she says. 

According to a recent article in the New York Times, “intense grandparenting,” often includes much more than just childcare. Laundry, cooking, helping with homework, even mowing the yard are among tasks grandmothers have been asked, or have volunteered, to do. In my part-time job as nanny, I washed loads of clothes, cleaned dishes, did some cooking. It felt pretty “intense,” and I collapsed into bed every night. 

“I’d gladly give up any job I had if the children needed me,“ Kathy Johnson told me. Not all grandmothers would be financially able to do so, though.  

I’m lucky, as are Johnson and Miller, that grandchild care is not a strain on the budget, but that is not the case for many. Financial support is available, but it’s difficult to receive. In addition, many grandmothers must sacrifice their own work and income to take care of their children’s children. 

In 2018, 2.9 million children were being raised solely by grandparents, representing 2% of all children. Research shows that 38% of grandparents help raise their grandchildren, and in 2018, grandparents on average spent $2,652 per grandchild. 

While the most often reported challenges are energy and physical limitations, grandmothers often experience problems similar to those of new parents. Feelings of isolation can occur, especially for full-time caregivers. Missing out on important retirement life activities, such as traveling, spending time with friends, having the freedom to live independent lives can often result from a steady routine of childcaring. 

Often grandmothers, according to an AARP article, feel a lack of support for their efforts, as resources which are available to new parents are not easily accessible by them.

Raising multiple grandchildren can also be challenging for many grandmothers. As Suzanne explains, “As they get older, it gets harder. They’re crawling, then walking, then running. And when they get even older, I worry about what they’re getting into, especially on the Internet,” she says of her teenage grandchildren.

Overall, though, in spite of challenges, grandmothers in caregiving roles are overwhelmingly positive about the experience. “You get to know your grandchildren,” Suzanne Miller concludes. “And that’s invaluable.” 


Barbara Presnell is a poet and essayist who lives in Lexington, NC.


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