Are You a Grandparent Hog?

Find out if you are guilty of exploiting your parents love for your kids.

Did you hear the one about the woman who dropped her two tweens off at her elderly parents’ retirement condo with no notice, and didn’t pick them up for 11 hours? It’s true, says the offender’s irate sister, Sarah Farber,* who adds there are two other siblings who use “and abuse” her parents’ generosity. With eight grandchildren between the ages of 10 and 13 regularly parked at the home of a couple well into their 70s, their not-so-empty nest could have qualified as a daycare. But the Dorchester, Ont., natives took charge, slapped a two-hour time limit on the grandchildren’s stays and refused to become the victims of grandparent hogs.

So what is a grandparent hog? A parent who takes advantage of a good-natured grandparent for babysitting and other assistance with the kids, often at the expense of equally needy siblings who might fancy a break from their children, too. While many harried parents have uttered the occasional, “Please, Mom, it’s been months since I’ve had a haircut/been out on a date/seen the dentist,” the grandparent hog is the exception. Grandparent hogs drop the kids off for Saturday night, the long weekend and school breaks, and require Grandma’s help before they can possibly wash a window or hold a garage sale. And what of the hog’s siblings, who’d like their children to spend an hour or two with Nana? Nada. There’s nothing left. The cottage? Sorry, we’ve checked in for two weeks.

Jealous already? We know that with more and more grandparents putting off retirement and leading social lives that could rival your teenage daughter’s ““ and the number of us raising kids far distances from their grandparental units ““ not everyone has a Bubbie or Zaidie to hog. But for those who do, the strain of a greedy sister or brother can send family dynamics spinning out of control.

According to Calgary psychologist Dr. Brian Zelt, many grandparent hogs are simply repeating needy childhood behaviour. If someone used manipulation to get what he wanted as a child, he may use the same tactics to take advantage of a grandparent later in life. So how do you deal? Check out the following archetypes to see which applies to your selfish sib, and employ our surefire strategies for setting him straight. And if you discover that you’re a grandparent hog? Call your cast-aside siblings and Mom and Dad with an apology ““ you’ll find their numbers on the speed-dial under “childcare.”

ADVANCE PLANNERS
call their parents/in-laws on January 1st and book them for every long weekend, plus two weeks in August.

Naomi Thomson,* a Toronto working mother with three kids aged seven, two and one, says her brother, James, is so busy reserving her mother for his weekend getaways that she can barely get her kids in for a quick visit.

While James has all the money he needs to pay a sitter for the four-day escapes he plans every three months, he instead pawns his five children off on his mother, a 75-year-old cancer survivor, and his mother-in-law, also in her 70s. Naomi’s kids are the last of ten grandchildren, and while she says she understands that her mother just doesn’t have time, she can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy when her nieces and nephews dish about yummy breakfasts at Nana’s.

How to Foil “Em Beat ’em at their own game. Got a sister who books her vacation time with your mom New Year’s Day? Next year call December 31st, or try: “There’s room at the cottage for these two weeks ““ would you like the first or the second?” Use words like “half,” “divide” or “split” with your clueless sibs, and work in casual references to the lives your parents have outside the time they spend with their grandchildren, a là “Mom’s watercolour painting is really coming along!” Grandparents need to be proactive with advance planners by getting a sense of what their own plans might be before those demanding calls come in, says Dr. Zelt. This will help them from feeling put on the spot with a request.

DROP AND ROLLERS
spring their kids on the grandparents with little or no notice.

Isabella Bastini’s* sister Mimi, for example, takes stay-at-home very seriously. She married and had children while still under her parents’ roof, and when she finally moved out for good, found a place for her family a convenient two blocks from her childhood home in Toronto. This allows Mimi to drop her kids, ages nine, six and two, at her retired parents’ home three times a week with no advance notice. Mimi doesn’t work because she can’t afford the childcare. Why would she pay for something she gets for free?

How to Foil “Em Book Mom and Dad for some R&R. Make plans for a fun outing with your parents where they can spend time with your kids but aren’t the primary caregivers ““ a day at the zoo or a weekend getaway ““ and it just might be the example your sibling needs. Be sure to mention, “We’re treating Mom and Dad to a weekend in the country as a thank you for all the help they’ve given us with the kids.” If your sibling still misses the point, she may be beyond help. Busy grandmother Greta Nilestrom,* whose eldest son had a child in his early twenties and relied on her extensively for help with his baby, points out that part of helping your adult child is letting him know your boundaries. A gentle, forthright discussion about a grandparent’s need for notice should solve the problem.

PIGGYBACKERS
horn in on childcare Granny is offering other siblings by claiming their children are pining for some “cousin time.”

Brenda Martin’s* first child was only 22 months old when her twins were born, and she figured it was finally her turn to have her enormously generous mother lend a hand. This Grandma had gone above and beyond the call of duty with her brother’s children, aged 11, nine and two, whom she practically raised, and now that Brenda had twins to contend with, her mother had offered to help out. However, the same day she came home from the hospital with her premature newborns, her grandparent- hogging sis-in-law started a new job and, without warning, dropped her two-year-old off at Brenda’s Burlington, Ont., home!

How to Foil ‘Em Head on or nothing at all. Brenda’s brother and his wife are so out to lunch it would seem that the only solution is a frank discussion. However, her brother’s sensitive temperament, combined with previous family fallouts, mean tackling the issue head-on would be a disaster, she says. Brenda and her mom have decided to avoid confrontation and ride out the situation: “We’re bearing it for the time being,” says Brenda, noting that time will pass, the kids will get older and the childcare tug-of-war will be over. She adds that she doesn’t want her family’s dynamic to sour given that everyone’s priority is the children. In most cases, though, says Dr. Zelt, ducking the issue will likely lead to resentment. Instead, the grandparent should initiate an open discussion that identifies everyone’s needs, boundaries and limits, while sorting out a workable solution, he says.

LOUNGERS
love family gatherings for the free babysitting, where it’s not just grandparents who get taken advantage of but aunts and uncles, too.

We’re talking about the couple who lounge by the pool with their eyes closed, relaxing and sipping cocktails. Meanwhile, the rest of the family is on pins and needles as their kids frolic in the water or cut a swath through Grandma’s garden. These folks figure it’s a great opportunity for their children to bond with Uncle Bob, when what Uncle Bob wants most is a break.

How to Foil ‘Em Fabricate a great urban myth. With so many family members around to divvy up the childcare, it’s tempting for us frazzled parents to put our feet up ““ even just a little. But it’s not right to take advantage. Happily, there’s nothing more apt to put a laissez-faire parent on edge than a reality check ““ even if it’s a fabricated one. So tell your lounger sibling a terrifying story about a friend of a friend whose child nearly drowned at a family reunion, and you’ll undoubtedly launch them off the pool deck.

UNDERESTIMATORS
say “I’ll be back in an hour” but show up two days later.

Sarah Farber says her siblings’ constant underestimating was breaking her parents’ spirit ““ and their goodwill. Her parents’ dreams of a relaxing retirement were slipping away as quality time with their grandchildren went from great to grind. Feeding and entertaining a gaggle of preteens is a challenge for most thirtysomethings, never mind aging retirees. Factor in long days with no end in sight, and this couple went from Freedom 55 to full-time job.

How to Foil ‘Em Cut ’em off at the pass. Sure your sister is going to be three hours late to pick the kids up from Nana’s? You could call to remind her how important it is that she make the pick-up on time because Grandma’s got other plans. But advice is best heeded when it comes straight from the horse’s mouth, says Zelt. Case in point, when Sarah Farber’s mother tired of providing free all-day childcare, she simply reminded her children that her name was Granny, not Nanny.

WHAT GRANDPARENTS WISH YOU KNEW
When Angela Davina’s daughter had a child 13 years ago, she jumped at the chance to play full-time Grandma, looking after her granddaughter, and later a grandson, until they were school-aged. An energetic 44, Angela (not her real name) felt the childcare was a labour of love. But by the time her other three children had their kids, Angela was 57, her aging mother had moved in with her and she just couldn’t cope with a brood of kids on her hands. Fortunately, open lines of communication meant she could quickly defuse the mounting resentment her adult children were feeling when they realized she couldn’t look after everyone.

Here are some of the things conflicted grandparents wish you and your siblings would keep in mind when vying for their time.

TAKE YOUR PARENTS’ AGE INTO ACCOUNT. Adult siblings jealous of a prior childcare arrangement need to consider circumstances like age and health. If your mom was 50 when she took care of your big brother’s kids, she might not be up to the task when you have children 10 years later. Ask your parents whether they feel physically up to caring for your kids.
KEEP LINES OF COMMUNICATION OPEN Be straight about what you need, and prepared to take no for an answer.

BE AWARE OF GRANDPARENTS’ OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES Are they working part-time? Do they volunteer or care for an aging parent? Be sensitive to their schedules and needs.

BEAR IN MIND THAT THERE ARE OTHER SIBLINGS WHO MAY ALSO BE ASKING FOR HELP Consider vetting your requests with your siblings. That way your appeal for an afternoon to shop won’t collide with your sister’s once-a-year sales conference.

REMEMBER YOUR PARENT’S OTHER LIFE It’s possible Nana saw her golden years as a time to take up tennis, lunch with the ladies or travel. She may not want to spend her retirement eating goldfish in a drop-in centre.

*Names changed to ensure full disclosure

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