Beyond birthday cards and hugs: The rise of intensive grandparenting

Why We Wrote This

For a generation that is supposed to be kicking back, grandparents are increasingly involved in child care. What might that mean for the evolution of retirement?

Elise Amendola/AP/File
Eileen and Doug Flockhart hold a photo of their seventh grandchild near a wall of family photos in their home in Exeter, New Hampshire, Aug. 24, 2011.

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Judy Dion enjoys taking long strolls with her infant grandson and marveling at his every gurgle and giggle. As his regular caregiver two days a week, Ms. Dion has more such moments to look forward to. Like her, many grandparents today are providing what’s called “intensive grandparenting”: caring regularly for their grandchildren, and often to a higher degree than in previous generations.

Demographic and cultural changes play a role. Rising numbers of single mothers and working mothers are a contributor, as is lack of government support such as guaranteed paid parental leave and access to affordable, high-quality child care. Now 7% of all grandparents are raising grandchildren full time, in many cases due to parents harmed by the opioid and mental health crises in the United States.

Researchers say these caregivers do experience joy in their roles, but there are stresses, such as juggling their own jobs. Sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer says checking in regularly and showing lots of love help smooth relationships. “What was very clear to me is that even when grandparents were providing a great deal of care, if they felt appreciated and cared for, there was much less stress.”

On Sunday evenings or in the wee hours of Monday morning, Judy Dion hops in her car and drives 78 miles to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her daughter and son-in-law live with their five-month old – Ms. Dion’s first grandchild. She watches her grandson for two days before heading back home to her part-time job and volunteer work on Cape Cod.

The parents were “talking about nannies, and it was going to be very expensive,” says Ms. Dion. “I said, ‘You know, my grandmother lived with us when I was growing up and I will always treasure those memories. ... I can’t be there every single day because it’s too far, but can I be a part of this nannying?’ ”

Her offer was readily accepted. Ms. Dion now enjoys taking long strolls with her grandson and marveling at his every gurgle and giggle. “Every week is different and it’s so precious,” she says.

But there are trade-offs. Time for her own needs diminished. She didn’t exactly picture what overnights in her daughter’s small downtown condo would be like, either.

Like Ms. Dion, many grandparents today are providing this “intensive grandparenting,” as it’s called by sociologists: caring regularly for their grandchildren, and often to a higher degree than in previous generations.

Demographic and cultural changes play a role, as well as lack of structural support for working parents. “Historically, grandparents have always provided care,” says Madonna Harrington Meyer, professor of sociology at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, and author of “Grandmothers at Work.” “What we’re seeing now is grandparents providing care that looks a lot more like parenting: more hours and more tasks.”

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that in the United States about 50% of young children, 35% of elementary-age children, and 20% of teens spend some time with grandparents in a typical week.

AARP’s 2018 grandparent survey found that 38% of grandparents consider themselves a “babysitter or daycare provider,” an increase from the 15% who said they provided child care in a 2002 survey and 8% who did so in 1999.

Rising numbers of single mothers and working mothers are a contributor, says Professor Harrington Meyer, as is lack of government support such as guaranteed paid parental leave and access to affordable, high-quality child care.

“There are cases where you have this nuclear family facade and it’s masking this intergenerational support reality,” says Jennifer Utrata, a professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, who just finished a fellowship conducting interviews with grandparents and their adult children.

Full-time caregiving, too 

Another form of grandparenting is also on the rise. Grandparents raising grandchildren full time has grown to 7% of all grandparents, in many cases due to parents harmed by the opioid and mental health crises in the U.S.

Joe O’Leary and his wife raise their 6-year-old grandson in Maynard, Massachusetts, and he leads a local support group sponsored by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

People often praise him for what he’s doing. But Mr. O’Leary notes that sometimes grandparents don’t have a choice but to step in. “It’s always other issues. ... Drugs and mental illness are by far the biggest things.”

Yet among researchers, it is a nearly universal finding that grandparents do experience a lot of joy around their grandchildren.

Katy Dermott lives with her daughter and son-in-law in Washington, D.C., and cares for her grandson full time while his parents work. “I think it’s better than I hoped, being able to be so closely involved,” she says. “When you’re a parent ... you have lots of things going on in the back of your mind. It’s such a delight to be able to bask in each moment.”

Adjusting to the role 

There are hidden stresses, such as grandparents juggling their own jobs, sometimes retiring early or giving up jobs with benefits for part-time work that coordinates with grandchildren’s schedules. There can be marital strife over how much time to spend caring for grandchildren.

Some grandparents make sure to carve out time for themselves. “It’s ‘our time’ after our granddaughter goes home at the end of the day,” says Holly Zietlow, who provides full-time care for her toddler granddaughter in Oviedo, Florida. Her husband works from home three days a week to support the effort.

Grandparents also face the physical demands with mixed results. Ms. Harrington Meyer says many report exhaustion, while others say that, with effort, they’re in the best shape of their lives.

Communication with their own children can be challenging because grandparents navigate differing opinions about how young ones should be raised, yet they typically also want to respect their adult children in the parenting role.

Ms. Harrington Meyer says checking in regularly, being willing to reconsider schedules, and showing lots of love help smooth the relationship.

“The most stressed and difficult stories were the grandmothers who felt taken for granted,” she says. “What was very clear to me is that even when grandparents were providing a great deal of care, if they felt appreciated and cared for, there was much less stress.”

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