It took a long trek from Dublin, and many rounds of “I Spy”, to visit my only granny, who lived in Norfolk. But anticipation of the pleasure of being with my grandparents always relieved the tedium of that car journey right across England.
I was only eight when she died but I still remember her warmth, wisdom and wit. Not to mention her home-made tomato soup, always served out of a glazed green jug, and the delights of mini-boxes of breakfast cereals, such as Frosties and Coco Pops, which weren’t available in Ireland in those days.
Unconditional love and good humour, with a liberal sprinkling of treats, characterise the best grandparent-grandchild relationships.
It’s a very special bond: the enjoyment of children without the responsibility of parenting on one side, and doting adult company without the nagging on the other.
“Grandparents bring something very special to the relationship and they have to have a certain leeway to do that,” says Rita O’Reilly, chief executive of Parentline.
As in all idealised family relationships, life and personalities can spoil the rosy picture. But modern grandparents are increasingly in the healthy position of being a longer-lasting source of practical and emotional support. Also, with family sizes shrinking, they are likely to have fewer grandchildren, who they can get to know really well, rather than a gang of children whose names they struggle to recall.
More than ever, then, the “middle generation” should be mindful of fostering the best of relationships for the benefit of all involved. The proven benefit of routine for small children fits well with older people’s tendency to be creatures of habit.
"It's clear that the middle generation have always exercised, and do exercise, a very powerful gatekeeping role," says Prof Virpi Timonen of the school of social work and social policy at Trinity College Dublin, who co-edited Contemporary Grandparenting: Changing Family Relationships in Global Contexts.
However, her research into grandparenthood in the event of a family breakdown has shown how the older generation can take remarkable measures to maintain relationships with their grandchildren.
“We have this tendency to see grandparents as powerless victims and as resources to help other people get on with their lives, but actually they do have a lot of scope and they make all sorts of interesting, strategic choices,” she says.
Typically it is the paternal grandparents who struggle to keep in contact with the grandchildren and their mother after a break-up.
Grandparents often play a hugely positive and active role in the lives of children but under Irish law, grandparents have no special status, says Tanya Ward, the chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance. They are not included in the constitutional definition of the "family".
The process for grandparents to gain access needs to be simplified, she argues. Currently, grandparents have to go to the District Court to ask permission to apply for access, before they can go ahead and make that application.
It is hoped, Ward adds, that a streamlining of this process, along with a new category of guardianship for grandparents who are rearing a child full-time, will be included in the forthcoming Children and Family Relationships Bill.
When families break down, everyone is hurt – including grandparents, says Geraldine Kelly, director of child and parenting services at One Family. They will have strong views on the situation but they should try to remain neutral, as they might need to facilitate the child's contact with the other parent.
“Try to do this for the child; they have a right to contact,” she advises grandparents. And “keep your opinions to yourself. Just because someone fails at being a partner doesn’t mean he or she isn’t a good parent, or at least trying their best.
“Life is hard for both parents when parenting alone or sharing parenting,” she adds. Also, think about what it is like for the child and try to support the child: “the adults will sort out their own issues in time”.
Being cut out of grandchildren’s lives is an issue that comes up among callers to Parentline. It is unfair on everybody to use the grandparent-grandchild relationship as leverage, says O’Reilly.
“When people are angry or upset, they think they will get at ‘him’ by not allowing ‘his’ parents see ‘my’ kids, but they forget they are ‘getting’ at their kids as well.”
There can be the same sense of loneliness when adult children emigrate and raise a family abroad
although at least, she points out, there is still a positive relationship and they may be able to visit or use technology such as Skype to communicate regularly.
The latter is one of the motivating factors for Age Action’s provision of computer training for people aged 55-plus in centres around the country.
"The more communications tools people have, the better chance they have of staying in contact," says the charity's spokesman, Eamon Timmins. "You can even bypass your adult children and talk straight to the grandchildren."
The opposite problem – seeing too much of grandchildren – is one that Age Action and Parentline hear a lot about too. It may be a case of “I don’t want to mind my grandchildren any more” or “I don’t want to mind my grandchildren” full stop.
“The advice is very straightforward – it is a matter of being open and honest,” says Timmins. But he acknowledges that older people feel a sense of loyalty, so it can be a big issue.
However, it’s no different to other stages of family life, when people can feel undervalued and taken for granted, he suggests. “It’s just that, with grey hair on top.” Timmins says couples using grandparents for childcare should review the arrangements regularly – and pay the going rate.
You hear about situations where childcare has become too much for grandparents, agrees O’Reilly. Parentline’s advice is that “you’re all adults here, so you have to renegotiate it. The mum and dad have to have respect for their parents and, equally, the grandparents should say they are happy to mind them, on say, Monday and Tuesday but want their freedom the rest of the week.”
Sometimes grandparents want to mind the children but the parents see they are not able. “That’s difficult, but it all comes down to having an open, honest adult conversation,” O’Reilly says, adding: “If only life was that simple.”
What is and isn’t allowed during the time grandchildren spend with grandparents can also be contentious and may need negotiation – as well as biting of tongues on both sides.
“There’s a tension between the two basic norms that are supposed to govern the behaviour and responses of grandparents in the Western context; the norm of obligation to help struggling family members and the competing norm of noninterference,” Timonen points out. “I imagine it puts grandparents into the very difficult position of having to be there and wanting to be there but at the same time watching what they say and what they do.”
Parentline gets calls from grandparents who are concerned about the way their sons or daughters are parenting their children. “We would say if you can, keep your mouth shut,” says O’Reilly, unless abuse or neglect is involved.
“However, if you are minding that child, you are responsible for the behaviour of that child. You don’t break the ‘big’ rules – for example, if their mother doesn’t allow the child ever to have sweets – but if the child is jumping on your couch and you don’t want that, you have got to reprimand them.”
Quality of life
Timonen is involved with Tilda, the Irish longitudinal study of ageing, which found that 35 per cent of participants look after their grandchildren for at least an hour a week and that those who do have a higher quality of life than those who don’t.
However, that solitary percentage figure masks many scenarios, from those who do only an hour or so to those who may do 50 hours.
Research hasn’t addressed the question of which grandparents become the “heavy duty” carers.
Does it boil down to circumstances, such as happening to live near a daughter who is in low-wage employment? Or, asks Timonen, does a certain kind of grandparent make it clear that they have raised their own family and would rather spend their time on the golf course, in the library or in Malaga?
Wealthier families tend to contract out care, whether it’s childcare or eldercare, she points out. “It’s almost like a new unspoken contract of ‘I won’t ask you for childcare and you won’t ask me for eldercare either’, which I think is fascinating.”
It is really important, Timonen adds, to understand who are the grandparents “hemmed in by very strong structural push-and-pull factors and who are the ones who are able to calibrate their involvement [with grandchildren] according to their own preferences.
“I would suggest that is highly consequential for the grandparents’ wellbeing.”
In fact, getting the balance right is important for all three generations.
Five essential truths of grandparenting
- You are expected to be available to help, but to keep your mouth shut on all parenting matters.
- It’s up to you to say “enough” if left holding the baby too long.
- Your grandchildren will be much more delightful when their parents aren’t around.
- You can be an important confidante for children: rich in life experience but free of parental emotional baggage.
- You are making memories . . . and shaping the grandparents of the future.