Mary Minihan: We owe our granny nannies more than a debt of gratitude

‘The existence of blood ties sometimes means goodwill can be taken advantage of’

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Amelia Wetton, Ruben Corrigaan and Kiya O’Connor from the Child Care Centre at the St Andrews Resource Centre recently. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Amelia Wetton, Ruben Corrigaan and Kiya O’Connor from the Child Care Centre at the St Andrews Resource Centre recently. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Members of the baby boomer generation, now hitting their 60s and 70s, who have swapped active retirement or late working years for a new role in caring for grandchildren have been described as “indentured slaves”.

Their adult children took the scenic route to parenthood and are currently benefitting from a labour of love that provides childcare on the cheap, runs the narrative. My own household is part of that trend, “employing” a hard-working granny nanny on a part-time basis as part of a suite of muddling through measures adopted by many working parents these days.

The “indentured slaves” remark was one particularly forthright assessment of the phenomenon I heard recently from a baby boomer reflecting on how many of their peers’ social lives had changed beyond recognition after grandkids arrived. The implication appeared to be that the eagerly anticipated golden years following a busy and productive working life were being tarnished by a new and exhausting grind of school pick-ups, endless meal preparation and unpredictable shift patterns.

Maintaining a career

There can be no doubt that the existence of blood ties sometimes means goodwill can be taken advantage of, with earlier starts and longer hours spent in the office on the days grandparents are in charge.

That the juggle is a struggle is a mantra for many parents trying to strike a healthy balance between maintaining a career and staying involved in children’s lives. Oftentimes it feels like the best that can be done is to attempt to fail better every day.

Grandparents supplementing the work of qualified childminders or creche workers, or caring almost exclusively for grandchildren during parents’ working hours and beyond, is becoming more common. Veterans swap tales of heroic “commutes” to locations as far away as England to mind youngsters for a couple of days a week.

An opinion poll carried out by The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI earlier this year found grandparents are now the most popular (42 per cent) source of childcare for working parents, followed by creches and childminders (both 20 per cent).

Perhaps some families are motivated solely by the desire to involve trusted grandparents in their children’s lives rather than any attempt to save on childcare costs, which are often described as the equivalent of a second mortgage.

But grandparents’ flexibility and generosity in their provision of loving guidance undoubtedly helps ease the financial burden on hard-pressed families living in a country where childcare costs are inexplicably among the most expensive in the world. Individual families come to personal arrangements, of course, but anecdotal evidence suggests the reward for grandparents tends to be primarily emotional rather than financial.

But spare a thought for the indebted generation whose lives these grandparents are facilitating. They may have bought their homes at a time of spectacularly high property prices and are now living with negative equity. They may not own property but are likely to be struggling with a toxic combination of rising rent and stagnant wages.

If they have a private pension at all, they are facing the prospect of lower retirement income than people whose working life is over and they may never be as “well off” as their parents in real terms.

Childcare crisis

Yet they are luckier than some because their parents are alive, healthy and, usually at least, living in the same country.

Inevitably, parental choices (if they can really be described as such) are influenced by the refusal of the political class to engage with the growing childcare crisis over many years. Working on the short-term premise that the squeaky wheel should get the grease, politicians tend to respond to voices from interest groups that shout the loudest. Perhaps those affected by high childcare costs have simply been too busy, or possibly too disconnected from the political process, to spend any time lobbying for change.

There are signs of hope, however. Minister for Children James Reilly has been investigating ways to address the absence of affordable childcare over the next decade. At the last Cabinet meeting before the summer break tomorrow week, Dr Reilly is expected to formally brief colleagues on the findings, which have been leaked, of an interdepartmental group he established.

Fine Gael Senator Cáit Keane suggested recently that grandparents were being used as “volunteer” childminders because of high costs. “Grandparents do the work very willingly but they do not want to do it 24 hours per day. Increasing participation in the workforce should not depend on abuse of the elderly,” Ms Keane said.

The debate should be kept in perspective. Thankfully we are a far cry from the Greek situation, where it is often said entire families are financially dependent on one pensioner. But it is a tragedy that childcare has been so undervalued in our country for so many years.

Mary Minihan is a member of The Irish Times Political Staff.

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