By: Revanche

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.) 

8 Responses to “Familial Childcare, Cultural Expectations and Assumptions”

  1. Well written – not much to add here! My parents moved out of their hometown and the question didn’t come up, and the same will happen when we have kids. My cousin was largely raised my my grandmother, even living with her for a few years.

    I think it is very common to expect relatives to babysit on occasion, but long term child care isn’t as common in my circle of friends.

  2. oilandgarlic says:

    My parents help out a lot, but I had no expectations that they would, unlike my younger sibling. They are eager to help out but also tell me that they’re tired. I also hired a p/t nanny so that I don’t dump all the care to my parents; it works out well because my husband is also able to stay home with the kids many days and I take primary duty on weekends and on my “vacation” days. I guess we have a true hodge-podge of care.

    While we do expect the nanny to adhere to our expectations (little or no TV), we don’t ask the same for my parents. Sure, they like to have the TV on a lot, but they’re offering their help for FREE and we know that we’re lucky to get this. I can always discuss things with them if we have slight differences.

  3. MSH says:

    I think oilandgarlic’s “true hodge-podge of care” is probably largely a healthy thing. While kids require a solid connection to parents in order to develop emotional stability, it seems like their development is also geared towards having people of many different ages to imitate and learn from. Otherwise kids would never learn things their own parents weren’t good at (esp. social skills), and some children would never see examples of “how to grow up.” It would be Idiocracy by culture instead of genetics. Thus I think it is crazy to have any one or two people (such as a grandparent or even the parents) being the only people around most of the time. The extended farming family can avoid this, but how to work out that balance in modern societies I haven’t figured out yet.

  4. I come from a long line of dual-career couples hiring professional help. We lived away from my grandparents, but even though my mother lived in the same town as her grandma and great aunt, they were too busy with their jobs to be childcare for my mom and her 7 sibs. So I guess, no, definitely no unspoken expectations.

    On DH’s side there are those expectations, but we live several states away from that clan so cannot just drop our child off at Great-grandma B’s to hang out with the other 71 grandkids, great grandkids, great-great grandkids etc. (There’s a lot of teen pregnancy in DH’s family.)

  5. Shelley says:

    When I was growing up, before I started school, I spent one or two days a week with each of my grandparents. Back then I understood it was because I was an only grandchild born after my parents had been married for 12 years and Grandmother, Grandma & Grandpa wanted to make up for lost time. It was fabulous for me because I got exposed to quite diverse personalities and contrasting lifestyles, not to mention being loved to bits. Now I understand that it may be so that my Mom could do some work (she work at home, painting photographs in the days before direct colour photography) and possibly have some rest – becoming a parent at 38 is a bit of a challenge. I think that today it’s fair to assume that grandparents may want to help with child care, but not to take it for granted that they will. Bill’s sister babysits 2 grandchildren for 2 days a week and the other grandmother takes 2 days, so the mom, working a four-day week, has free child care. They have now had a third child and the grandmothers are discussing whether they need to set some boundaries on how much free child care they’re prepared to give for how many children, particularly as the mom is incredibly ill during most of her pregnancy and requires a great deal of help getting through it – a fact she seems to promptly forget as soon as the birth is over. As older people are staying healthy for longer they have other interesting options open to them. Personally, I know Bill would love to be a grand-dad, but given that his children are not mine, I’m not so sure I’ll enjoy it much. Fortunately, Manchester and Edinburgh are not next door, so we do have some breathing space and we can discuss that issue when and if it arises. You certainly have lots to think about, given all your circumstances!

  6. I think it’s a cultural thing.

    In the year before my son was born, my mother died and my father remarried.

    Probably if she had lived, she might occasionally have taken care of my son. At least she would have been there to offer advice. They lived about 25 miles from our house, so it would have been inconvenient for her to come in to town or for me to traipse out to Sun City with the kid.

    It never entered my mind to ask my father to take care of my child.

    The truth is, I doubt if either one of them much cared for children. I’m sure once I was out of the house, he was glad to be free of parenting tasks. If she had lived, I can’t imagine she would have expected to participate in long-term child care.

    We were extremely lucky to have not one but two lovely grandmotherly ladies in the neighborhood who chose to take care of kids for reasonable compensation. One had raised a daughter who was a nuclear physicist and a son who was a theater director; the other’s children had similarly grown into responsible non-drug-ingesting members of society.

    While I was finishing my dissertation and then after I started working, they traded off care for my son: a couple of days a week at one house, three days at the other, back and forth. We could walk to their homes, and they always had a couple of other kids there, so my only child got socialized to share with others.

    After we moved out of that neighborhood, it wasn’t so easy to find ladies to care for him. We had one real fiasco and then a very nice woman who was an RN — both were very expensive. Finally we found another mother at his day school who was doing child care in her home; because I couldn’t get out of work at 3:00 p.m., we had a taxi pick him up after school to schlep him over there.

    When I was little, my mother would occasionally leave me with sitters. Then we went to Arabia, where wives were not allowed to work, so the whole issue was mooted. After we came back to the States, we lived in San Francisco and my great-grandmother and great-aunt lived in Berkeley, so leaving me with them was out of the question. Besides, I was old enough to be alone then–an early latch-key kid, before the term existed! 😀

  7. This is definitely cultural. My mom has my two nieces currently living with her. Before they lived with me for two years. In my culture (Caribbean) it’s all about a village raising a child. My older sister is already pestering me to have her niece and nephew (am 31) so she can retire (she’s 43) and take care of them.
    Do I expect her to? No. But I know she will.

  8. Katie C. says:

    Ha! Your friend reminds me of myself. 😉 Actually, I just joke about hating kids. I do love my nephew, and there have been some darn cute kids whose acquaintance I’ve made over the years. I still think they’re mostly unbearable at aquariums, and I don’t want any of my own.

    One funny thing that I noticed… If you volunteer for something the first year, it becomes A Thing. So, for my nephew’s first birthday party, I was the photographer. And this year it was just assumed that I would take photos. It actually wasn’t even mentioned to me until the night before the party, and I try to be more *in the moment* these days instead of worrying about documenting the experience the entire time. But I did it anyway, and I assume it will be my duty for all future birthday parties.

    Another thing… Though my nephew isn’t potty trained yet, so I can’t say this with absolute certainty, I like babysitting kids more than babies. I love holding babies and watching them, but they’re SO MUCH WORK. Babies have a schedule, and you are responsible for every little thing. I babysat my nephew one time, and I was a nervous wreck because I just knew I’d feed him at the wrong time or forget to check his diaper often or bathe him wrong. (Hey! It could happen!)

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