Grandparenting has changed drastically over the last few decades, yet there are still misconceptions about what's expected when helping out with the grandchildren. Grandparents are far more active these days, with many working beyond retirement age, traveling frequently or leading busy social lives. But as a grandparent who was once a busy mom myself, I understand how hard it is not to take a grandparent's lack of help as a personal snub.
My mother was willing to babysit when my children were young, but my father had other plans. He loved to go out on the town and wasn't as willing to sacrifice a quiet evening at a five-star restaurant to stay home and watch my kids. It also didn't help that their house resembled an art museum, with many valuables on display that curious little fingers might mistake as toys.
On the other hand, my in-laws would have loved to be more active in our children's lives, but they lived 1,300 miles away. Still, it was difficult not to compare the grandparents. Eventually, I had to accept the inevitable: My parents were happy to stay involved with their grandchildren as long as we were at family functions. Basically, they didn't want sole responsibility for my kids if I wasn't around.
When I finally questioned my father's hesitancy to babysit, he claimed he'd already done his parental duty by raising me (and my siblings) and was not obligated to help raise any more children. Interestingly, though, he admitted he wasn't comfortable dealing with infants or toddler-age children — too loud and too active for him — and promised to be more involved once they were old enough to reason with. His honesty was actually a relief to me. He loved my children; he just wasn't comfortable with the chaos of babysitting them while they were young.
So, why do some grandparents relish their title in name only and never volunteer to babysit? “Some grandparents may feel resentful that they are being put into a child care role when they feel it is their turn to enjoy a phase of life where they are free to pursue other interests,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who works with families. “Others may feel that child care is too tiring for them at their age.”
This is especially true when dealing with a rambunctious grandchild. “If a child is unmanageable, the grandparent may be sparing the parent's feelings by making excuses not to babysit,” Greenberg suggests. This is the easiest, least hurtful option if the grandparent is uncomfortable confronting the parents about their child's behavior.
I must confess that I wasn't prepared to be a first-time grandmother. In fact, I was terrified of the responsibilities it might entail. My daughter lived several hours away, so regular babysitting gigs were not an option. But when she moved back home a few years later, she needed help. My first instinct was to help in any way possible other than babysitting. I was acting mainly out of fear, since my granddaughter was going through the “terrible twos” and cried uncontrollably whenever her mother left the room. Unable to console her, I felt frustrated and worthless as a grandparent, which led to my decision not to babysit. But one day, after my granddaughter's third birthday, I spent several hours alone with her, doing crafts and watching funny toddler videos on YouTube. She sat on my lap most of the time and nestled in close with her little arms wrapped around me as we laughed through the afternoon. That special time together broke the fear barrier that prevented me from enjoying her. Afterward, I was thrilled to babysit whenever possible. All it took was getting used to handling a small child after being out of the baby-rearing loop for 25 years.
There are numerous reasons why some grandparents shy away from babysitting, and none are out of a lack of love for the grandchild. My generation is accustomed to busy schedules and staying active socially, so it's a bit presumptuous to expect all grandparents to surrender a large chunk of their time to babysit. Even if you have a close relationship with your folks, this doesn't guarantee they'll take an active role in your child's life. Also, pressuring them into babysitting may cause resentment and hurt feelings. This is especially true with parents who rarely initiate contact with the grandparents unless they need help. A grandparent who feels underappreciated will be less willing to pitch in.
Another reason some grandparents may be hesitant to babysit is a lack of energy or the inability to keep up with an active child. Or they may be dealing privately with an illness — or even taking a medication that alters their ability to babysit.
If a parent is upset that their parents aren't more involved, it should be addressed. According to Greenberg, discovering the reasons behind a grandparent's preference to not babysit is a delicate balancing act requiring honest discussion. “Approach the conversation with calmness and a lack of judgment,” she advises. Avoid comparing them to other grandparents you know “who may embrace child care more enthusiastically,” she adds. “This will benefit all of them so that resentment and misunderstandings don't become problematic.”
Ultimately, parents should be “open and direct” about their disappointment and give grandparents “the time and space to respond,” says Greenberg.
Parents might also consider new ways to involve grandparents in a child's life by choosing (and inviting them to!) activities that will interest them: a child's museum with interactive exhibits, weekly family dinners, movie nights at home, gardening, picnics in the park or even a family vacation together. Bonding might take time, but it will start with initiating that all-important conversation, finding a compromise and being patient.
Want insight and advice on grandparenting and other family dynamics? Email Marcia at firstname.lastname@example.org with your question, and it may inspire a future column.
Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of Who Stole My Spandex? Life in the Hot Flash Lane and the voice behind the midlife blog Menopausal Mother. She is a regular contributor to AARP The Magazine, with her work also appearing in the New York Times, the Washington Post, HuffPost, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day and many others. She lives in sunny South Florida with her husband, four adult children, four grandchildren and two feisty pugs.