Familial Childcare, Cultural Expectations and Assumptions
September 28, 2011
It was a family truism that when I finally had kids, “Grandma” was going to pay me back for every sin I committed as a youngun, even the ones I couldn’t remember, with 10% interest.
“Just wait until you have kids of your own,” she would mutter after I’d upset her, the dire threat implicit enough. Sometimes she’d follow up with, “and if they’re not creative enough, I’ll tell them how you messed with me to start them off!”
She was going to get away with it, too, because she knew I wanted a career as much as she wanted grandkids. Since it wasn’t likely that I’d have a house-husband (though really, that’d be awesome), her babysitting availability was the best way to practically guarantee I’d be willing to take on that responsibility.
All joking aside, it was secretly a huge comfort to me knowing that my mom was fully committed to my future family and was excited about helping to care for them so that my spouse and I could work.
That was her dream plan for retirement: raising small children. Never let it be said that we understand how to relax in my family.
I had to, with much sadness, let go of that shared expectation and daydream some years ago when her health began its downward spiral. And I’ll always be a little sad that the person who bore the standard for me won’t be there in mind or body, though always in spirit, for my children if I have them.
It wouldn’t be safe or right for me to leave prospective children with my ailing mother in charge of them. Certainly she’d want to visit with them, but that would always have to be supervised. And so I haven’t really had the heart to think about that in a long while, until now.
In our culture, the idea that grandparents are available for long-term babysitting and practically take on the raising of the grandchildren is almost taken for granted. It’s doesn’t always happen in cases where grandparents were less nurturing or too busy or the math doesn’t work out. One set of grandparents to multiple sets of children and grandchildren requires a fair amount of logistics if everyone wants Grandma and Grandpa in residence.
But in general, there’s often a sense of expectation that first generation parents can rely on their parents for free childcare when the time comes to bring up the next generation. Some of that expectation is fostered by the prospective grandparents, some of it spins out of the understanding that “that’s how we do it.”
I’ve recently started hearing a mismatch of expectations in families and started thinking about what the cultural and societal norms are now. If anything, my expectation was that more frequently, with the greater separation of families due to schools and jobs and kids moving further away, families would rely on technology to nuture relationships between generations. I also supposed that ethnic grandparents would be disappointed by parents who didn’t necessarily want their Traditional Parents rearing the grandkids.
Instead, I’m seeing a combination of adherence to the traditional grandparents-as-babysitters paradigm, as well as a parallel track where the new grandparents don’t necessarily want the caretaking or the raising of their grandkids. And the desire and trend toward more visitation-rights-only is more in line with what I’d expect from the American norm.
My maternal grandfather, for example, isn’t in the least bit interested in raising any of his seventeen grandchildren. He prefers to bide in peace and visit. His wife is all about the raising of them so she moves about, house to house, spending as much time as possible with the various nuclear families. One of my aunties helped raise her grandchildren for a period of time but because her idea of discipline (strict) wasn’t aligned with her kids’ (let them run rampant), she declined to continue babysitting the hooligans (my description, not hers) after they became too much for her to handle. As far as I know, the relevant family members found ways to manage their childcare without the grandparents in question.
My personal opinion is that if you have parents and family members who are willing to give of their time and energy to do your parenting, that’s an enormous gift. But that’s a gift and that’s their choice. At the end of the day, your children were your choice to have, and your responsibility.
Of late, I’ve been hearing statements that strike me as less than gracious even though I come from a culture that actually does “expect” grandparents to substitute for new parents. I’m hearing things that, perhaps especially as they begin to directly affect me and my health issues, are, I feel, less than considerate and it bothers me.
Stating “Well, the nanny learned how to do it!”, “it” being some part of the more specialized health care your child requires doesn’t sit right with me. In what ways does it make sense to suggest that a family member get equated with a trained-in-special-health-care, vetted, interviewed, and paid employee?
I can absolutely understand that parents want grandparents to be involved with the grandchildren, even highly involved. You certainly want that bond to form and for any other important people to be part of your kids’ lives. But if the grandparents aren’t comfortable with fulfilling all the needs, particularly any specific or special needs, of the kids, does it not cross a line to insist that they take on those responsibilities? What about other family members? Are they also asking for a babysitting assignment when they want to spend time with your kids, regardless of their feelings or capabilities in the matter?
And for the health and proper care of your child: when should you simply know better than to ask if that is the case?
Again, I come from a cultural place where it’s normal to just assume that Grandma and/or Grandpa can and will help out. Or will help out any way that they’re capable. So I would normally understand that, but at the same time, I come from a personal place where you take care of your own to the best of your ability first, so being taken for granted as free labor, particularly when my energy is so dear, strikes a few nerves. It’s hard for me not to feel like I’m judging when I’m asking these questions but it seems rather inconsiderate. And even if it weren’t me being taken for granted, I think my head would still be tilted forty five degrees to one side, wondering.
While I do, on occasion, happily help certain friends with their kids, I’m either asked or offering a set amount of assistance within my abilities and energy levels. They aren’t taking for granted that I’ll be available, and they’re making sure that they’re not putting me out or expending all my energy, or putting me in a difficult position by planning all their activities first and asking me last so that I feel guilty for ruining their plans if I have to say no.
I’m not a fan of this trend but I wonder if I’m the only one who sees this sort of thing.
::: Is there a prevalent assumption that family are fair game as childcare providers or is that coming from a dissonance when one of two parties doesn’t want to participate in the traditional exchange?
::: Am I overcomplicating the question? Is it just that there’s an assumption that it’s your familial duty to babysit if you are childless, no matter who you are, unless you’re a professed baby-hater like one of my girlfriends? (She’s my example because while chatting with her, she pointed out that no one in their right mind would ask her to ‘sit, she’s made it plain she hates babies. She tolerates children.)