My mother-in-law said from the get-go that she wouldn’t be the full-time babysitter of our kids. She takes them once a week, and for the occasional overnight, but she never wanted a regular gig. Sure, she felt guilty for saying so, but my husband and I appreciated her honesty. She says that many grandparents feel more anxiety taking care of their grandchildren than they did taking care of their own children. Mother’s instinct doesn’t stretch a generation, she thinks.
“Maybe I’m not a good grandmother because I would much rather be doing my own thing than babysitting,” says Donna Long*, in her 60s, of Winnipeg. She has one son, one daughter and four grandchildren. “My daughter probably expects me to be more involved because I’m retired. At this age, I should be free to do whatever. My daughter’s husband calls her a “helicopter’ because she hovers over her kids for fear they will hurt themselves. I was more relaxed with my own kids because I had no time to worry about their falls. But, when I babysit, I’m terrified that the grandkids will fall or choke on something. I find looking after them very stressful.”
Some grandparents suggest that the key to keeping that parental instinct finely tuned is to connect with the grandkids when they’re really young — without parents being too much involved.
“I don’t think a mother’s instinct is ever gone, but grandparents need to bond with their grandchildren when the kids are at a very early age. The more time spent, the closer the bond,” says Rachel Smith*, 65, of Winnipeg. She has three sons and one granddaughter, age six, who she has babysat twice a week, including overnights, since the baby was two. “Without this early bonding, I wouldn’t be as prepared to take on the care of my grandchild.”
Parents do hover, Smith continues. “There’s little time for free play and for children to use their imagination. Children are not asked if they want to participate in an activity. The decision is made for them,” says Smith.
Long agrees. She’s all for signing kids up for lessons — she did the same thing with her kids, but “they were older than two. My grandson has been going to Montessori since he was two, was in Kinder Music long before then and has taken swimming lessons. Poor kid. He is very bright, no doubt, but now he needs to be overstimulated so that he doesn’t get bored. I wonder how he will manage when he gets to school.”
If there’s one defining issue between generations, it might be around the rituals of food and eating. “The one thing that really bugs me is the way my daughter caters to the kids’ dietary needs. They eat only what they choose and only if it is cut up the way they like it. I think that kids should eat what their parents eat, period,” Long says. Smith is blown away by how many overweight children she sees today. Her feeling is that it’s just as easy to make a healthy meal as it is to go through a drive-thru. It’s not that fast food should be outlawed, just limited, she says.
If today’s generation of parents hover, it certainly isn’t around the dinner table as a family, and that has some grandparents very concerned. “We try to get everyone to the table for the family meal ritual. There is a big difference from how we brought up our girls to the parenting that our grandsons receive, which is more like eating on demand. Our kids had more structured diet choices, eating times and bed times,” says Kevin Richards*. He and his wife, of Winnipeg, are both in their early 60s. They have two daughters and two grandsons, age seven and three.
Smith couldn’t agree more. “Families should sit down to dinner at a regular time, at the dinner table and not in front of the TV. There should be regular mealtimes and bedtimes. Bedtime for a young child should not be 10 p.m. So many children don’t get enough sleep,” she says.
Consistency in parenting has Chris Taylor*, 61, of Vancouver worried. Taylor has five children, four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren who range in age from 10 months to 13 years old. “My biggest concern for all of my grandchildren is that there is little routine and structure in their lives. Each day is so totally different, with so many activities, that little things like cleaning rooms, making beds, picking up, and finishing tasks is just not done. There is no simplicity in their lives. When I am with my grandchildren, I insist on finishing tasks. It’s strange to them. They want it all, and parents want it all for them, but there is no time to sit, collect thoughts, organize and prepare,” says Taylor.
Ask any parent of young kids today what they wish they had more of and the answer will likely be time. Recent Statistics Canada findings show that 74 percent of moms work outside of the home and spend just over three hours with the family on a typical workday. That’s almost 40 minutes less time than moms were spending with the family in 1986. But who’s counting?
“The current middle-class generation is so fortunate, what with maternity leaves, disposable diapers, DVD machines in their cars, Treehouse, baby monitors and on and on. But in spite of all these modern conveniences, the moms I know are overwhelmed by parenthood. This is a mystery to me and to women my age, who made do with so little and for the most part were so happy. My daughter is a working mom with two children who are three and 16 months old. However, she has a nanny who works Monday to Friday. Honestly, my secret thought is that she hasn’t a clue how easy she has it. Her house is clean, the children are scrubbed and, often, the supper is prepared for the family before she returns home at 5 p.m. I am happy for her but think how hard I worked in comparison to her…with no family support, no nanny and a full-time night job,” says Long.
It was a labour of love that pulled Mary Cassell, 65, and her husband, Don, 77, of Exeter, Ont. to the Dominican Republic for the non-profit organization Youth With A Mission. The Cassells were there for a total of five years, working with locals on English language skills and infrastructure projects. The couple have 18 grandchildren in their blended family, ranging in age from six months to 24 years old. This experience has given the Cassells a unique perspective on parenting today. “The kids down there are, in some ways, too free,” says Mary Cassell. “I saw a three-year-old with a machete in one hand and a mango in the other. Some kids had coffee in their bottles. But then, when I got home from a mission on one occasion, I bought a secondhand baby swing for one of my daughters. When she wouldn’t let me put her baby in it because it didn’t have the CSA approval [sticker], I thought, “Good grief, we used to put the bassinet in the backseat.” Safety measures are good, she concedes, but she feels things are overhyped in Canada right now.
Even so, Cassell is quick to say that her children are better parents than she was. Parents today, she says, are concerned with the long-range results of their parenting, whereas she was just living moment to moment as a mom. “Is it going to be a time-out? Is it going to be a swat on the bottom? Whatever the style of parenting, it seems to be well thought out,” she observes.
And on the topic of discipline, Smith adds that she was “brought up in a home where discipline included spankings, so I did not hesitate to use spankings as a form of discipline. I would never, ever, consider that now.”
Keep it simple — just think kittens and puppies. All they need is food, sleep and lots of love. That’s the advice Carol Lee, 60, of Fergus, Ont., passed on to her daughter to soothe her through life as a new mom. Carol and her husband, Jim, 62, have two children, ages 40 and 34, and one grandson, who will be four in November.
“This generation of women are choosing to have their children in their 30s and 40s. At 20 years old, I was more naÃ¯ve and yet natural with my babies. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. I was also fortunate to be watched over by my mother, mother-in-law and grandmothers. Heaven knows what they would have said in an article like this,” laughs Lee.
“Be a Grandparent’ is in the top three items on Renee Wilson’s bucket list.
*Names have been changed.