Call her the granny nanny. Nearly every weekday for eight years, Sharon Olson has invested long hours in a job that is worlds apart from her former career as an optician. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. she cares for three young grandchildren while her daughter and son-in-law work. Legos, puzzles, and crayons now fill her split-level house in Elk River, Minn.
"My daughter was reluctant to put her baby in day care, even though she was the director of the center," says Mrs. Olson. "It just wasn't as much one-on-one time as she wanted for him."
In a nation of working parents, a new guardian is emerging as the leading child-care provider grandparents like Olson. New census figures released today show that among the nation's 19.6 million preschoolers, grandparents took care of 21 percent, or 1 in 5, of those who were in some type of child-care arrangement in 1997. Fathers cared for 17 percent of preschoolers while mothers worked. About one-fifth of preschoolers were cared for in organized facilities 12 percent in day-care centers and 6 percent in nursery schools or preschools.
For some parents, the motive for using "gran-nannies" is economic. Child-care costs average $4,000 to $6,000 a year nationally and sometimes exceed $10,000, says Alan Simpson of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
"For many families, especially low-income families, it's one of their largest expenses," he says. Only 15 percentof gran-nannies said they're paid, the census reports.
These gran-nannies also provide emotional support unavailable in institutional settings, parents and grandparents say.
"Grandparents are the best source of caregiving for children, whether they're getting paid or not," says Kathy Reynolds of Enfield, Conn., who cares for three grandchildren daily during the school year and twice a week in the summer. "We have an emotional connection to the children, and we can pass on our family values and follow through on the parents' values. A lot of child-care providers might have different values."
Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign in New York, speculates that concern about the quality of institutional child care is also feeding the increase in grandparent care. "Parents want someone who will love their children, and whom they can trust," she says.
The growth of ethnic communities that place a high cultural value on extended families could also be contributing to the growth, Ms. Wohl adds.
For Wohl, the census data also signal a need for child-care experts to create support and information for grandparents about child development.
"The increasing number of grandparents suggests that we need totally new ways of reaching and informing relatives who care for children, " she says. As the grandmother of eight, she adds, "I've learned so much from my daughter about new ideas in caring for children."
For Terri Tepper of Barrington, Ill., grandparent care involved a long-distance commute. Undaunted by the 738 air miles separating her from her first grandchild, she became a flying granny nanny. Every Sunday evening beginning in March 2001, Ms. Tepper made the 2-1/2 hour flight from Chicago to White Plains, N.Y., where her daughter and son-in-law live. She cared for her infant granddaughter until Thursday evening and then flew home. She continued the weekly commute, unpaid, through last April.
"It was a wonderful situation for all of us," Tepper says. "The relationship I have with that little girl is just precious."
She sees other rewards. "Because my daughter didn't have to worry about her day care, she was made a partner in her consulting firm during this time," she says. All those plane tickets, paid for by her daughter and son-in-law, cost less than hiring a nanny.
Whatever the rewards for some grandparents, this is not necessarily what others had dreamed of for this stage in their lives, long after their nests had emptied.
"I planned on having a little red sports car," says a whimsical Ms. Reynolds, who is also thecustodial guardian of two other grandchildren. "Now I have a big blue Chevy minivan for transporting the kids."
For her part, Olson can only wonder what it's like just to be a grandparent, the old-fashioned way. "I have a much closer relationship, a parent role, in raising them," she says. "I don't know which would be nicer."
For Mr. Simpson at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the census data signal that the nation must also improve the quality of child-care programs. "If you have a trusted family member, that might be a great solution for your family," he says.
"But as a society we need other choices. There are a lot more families out there for whom a grandparent or a family member is not an option, or not a good option. For many families, we need center-based care. There aren't enough grandparents out there."