The e-mail messages began as a trickle, carrying intriguing subject headings such as "Tired grandmother," "Feeling needed again!" and "Grannies are so precious."
Within days, the trickle had grown to a small flood. Grandparents make that grandmothers were weighing in with personal experiences and perspectives on afront-page story in The Christian Science Monitor Aug. 1, "Meet the nanny 'Granny.' "
As the story explains, new census data show that grandparents are now the leading providers of child care for preschoolers, caring for 21 percent of those who were in some kind of child-care arrangement in 1997. Fathers cared for 17 percent of preschoolers while mothers worked. One in 5 attended day-care centers or family day-care homes.
The subject struck a chord, producing the biggest reader response to any story I've written. The piece has also drawn more than 90,000 page views on the Monitor's website, www.csmonitor.com/grandparents.
These "granny-nannies" express emotions ranging from joy and satisfaction to fatigue and resentment. Many long to feel more appreciated and to hear those two little words, "Thank you," more often. But whatever challenges they face, they are sustained by a deep love for their grandchildren.
For most, caring for grandchildren is not a choice. Parents either cannot find good day care or can't afford it.
"My daughter made too much to qualify for day-care assistance, but not enough to pay $200 a week for a 6-month-old infant and $100 a week for after-school care for her 8-year-old," one woman writes. "I run a small business from my home, and the baby's care means I do most of my work at 5 a.m. or 8 p.m., before she arrives or after she leaves."
Others tell similar stories of combining caregiving and careers. One woman with a demanding sales position drives 45 minutes each way, four or five nights a week, to baby-sit for her 7-month-old grandson. Her son manages a Domino's Pizza outlet. Her daughter-in-law works part time in a store. "On a $7.25-an-hour paycheck, putting the baby in day-care would have been financially impractical."
The most prickly issue involves the unpaid status of caregiving grandparents.
"I have been watching my grandchildren for four months," says a grandmother of four. "However, with today's economy, I need a job that can pay me. My daughter cannot afford to do so because they are barely surviving. What can I do?"
Another woman comments: "It's very sad that after a lifetime of working full time, grandparents should have a second full-time job of caring for their grandchildren unpaid. Have we raised such a spoiled generation that the taking never ends? I can see a grandparent lovingly helping out part time, but to sacrifice all of one's life so that one's children can make more money? Something's wrong here."
Although grandma may be doing the hands-on work in most cases diapers, meals, games, stories grandpa's dreams of a leisurely retirement have been put on hold, too.
"My husband and I cannot afford day care, and my mother agreed to watch my daughter, now 2 years old," a young mother says. "She is also watching my divorced sister's three children. She has no time with friends, no time to herself, and no time for her husband. My dad is getting very stressed, along with my mom, but they love the children so much. Next year my sister and I have to find a baby sitter."
A customer-service representative whose husband works nights notes that her father takes care of their children: " 'Grandpa Nanny' is the one who watches the little one while I'm held over late or early morning when I'm in training."
Other grandparents are part of a sandwich generation. One woman who takes care of her 2-1/2 year-old grandson is also the full-time caregiver for her elderly mother. "Our grandson is a constant source of amusement and joy for us all, especially my mother," she writes.
And a retired schoolteacher has reduced her volunteer work to care for a great-granddaughter. "After seeing the difficulties of good child care, I decided the best use of my time and expertise is direct care of the little ones in my very large family," she says.
Several women who worked when their children were young are enjoying a new role. "I missed out on all the great field trips and after-school activities for them and felt horrible," one says. "Now I can be a big part of the grandkids' lives."
Some adamantly oppose full-time caregiving. "Never would I think of taking my daughter's place raising her children," one says. "That is for her and her husband to do. Grandmas are supposed to be 'gifts,' not workhorses. Remember, these are our 'golden years.' "
Adds another, "What our kids don't realize is this Mom and Dad have a life, too. We raised our kids ourselves."
Some comments are poignant. A grandmother who cares for two grandchildren says, "Sometimes I resent the fact that I don't get to just be their grandmother the kind that bakes cookies with them and gets to spoil them, then sends them home. I love keeping them, but I wonder how their feelings about me will be in the future. Will this make them closer to me, or will I always be 'the baby sitter' "?
A grandmother of 11 adds, "I've seen too many [caregiving] grandparents say, 'When my grandchildren are old enough, I'll start traveling or do what I want.' They never lived that long."
Other issues surface as well. Caregiving grandparents must be sure they don't ignore or neglect other grandchildren, one woman cautions. "That can be a real problem and cause long-term hard feelings in the family."
The story also spurred comments from mothers.
"I am fed up with my age group of parents (30-somethings) who feel it is great that their mothers or mothers-in-law are taking care of their kids and don't consider taking care of their own children," writes a mother who quit a lucrative career to be at home.
Child-care providers also weighed in, defending their role. "If you have a good, caring family home center or licensed day-care center with caring people, I believe children can get the emotional support they need," a mother says. "I wouldn't keep my 5-year-old in the day-care center I work in if I didn't think the teachers and directors added to her life."
Some respondents proposed solutions, such as giving grandparents tax credits for child care.
"Most granny-nannies are not paid because minimum wage doesn't even get a family up to poverty level," notes another woman. "We need a living wage so that mothers can rear their own children."
"Mothers must be supported by our tax dollars to enable them to stay home with their little ones in the early years," says a caregiving grandmother. "Competent child care must be funded generously."
What are the larger messages in these e-mails?
The sharply divided opinions underscore the need for tolerance and an acceptance that families work out child-care arrangements for their own reasons. There is no single right way.
The responses emphasize the importance of affordable care. And they serve as a reminder that grandparents deserve gratitude for their help.
Several mothers do express deep appreciation.
"The peace of mind that comes from knowing my sons are with people who will love and protect them as much as we do is, without a doubt, a debt we can never repay to our 'nannies,' " one woman writes.
Another adds, "I hope one day to be able to reward my mom with something big."
Perhaps we need a bumper sticker for the 21st century: "Have you thanked a grandparent today?"