A few weeks ago my five month old daughter awoke from her nap screaming uncontrollably, clearly in pain.  This, of course, occurred at 5pm on a Friday, just after her doctor’s office closed and just after my husband left to go on a business trip.  “Maybe I can get an appointment with urgent care” I thought, hoping that they had extended hours.  I called the advice nurse/appointment desk to see.  But my daughter was screaming so loudly that I couldn’t hear the nurse on the other end of the line.  So I hung up…and then called my mom.  “CAN YOU COME OVER” I yelled into the phone when I heard my mom pick up.  My parents live close by and so my mom arrived shortly, holding my screaming daughter in another room so I could call the nurse.  After getting an appointment, Grandma then accompanied us to the clinic, sitting in the back seat of the car with my daughter, consoling her.

This little vignette is illustrative of a recurring thought I have had since having my daughter – how the **** do people have kids without family nearby?  Not only can grandparents come in handy when you are in a pinch like the one I described, but they often can also provide care for their grandchildren on a more regular basis.  Caring done by grandparents is something particularly important for families that cannot afford the costs of daycare and for grandchildren whose own parent(s) may be suffering from personal problems like addiction or are in trouble with the law.  The census bureau estimates that there are 2.5 million grandparents primarily responsible for the basic needs (food, clothes, housing) of one or more of their grandchildren.   

The role that grandparents play in caring for grandchildren has been in the headlines lately since we now have a First Grandmother, Marian Robinson, (Barack  Obama’s mother-in-law) living in the Whitehouse.  Not only is Grandma Robinson helping to ease the transition to Washington for the Obama girls, but she also cared for them while the Obamas were on the road during the election, even going so far as to quit her own job to focus on the girls.  Though late night comics have made fun of this care arrangement – with Jay Leno quipping, “Barack Obama’s mother-in-law might be moving into the White house with him.  Joe Biden was right.  Hostile forces will test him in the first few months” – I bet there are many parents out there envious of Grandma Robinson’s willingness to provide so much care to her grandchildren…Not all grandparents are so willing. 

The different attitudes grandparents have towards caring for their grandchildren was recently underscored for me when a friend of mine (I’ll call her Sarah) told me that she did not want to be in charge of watching her grandchildren on a regular basis when she retires next year.  “I’m not doing anything that is scheduled, like every Wednesday” she said, “that would defeat the whole purpose of me being retired.”  She paused, looked at me searchingly for a reaction and then asked, “Is that bad?”  Sarah’s daughter is my age and I sensed that my friend was trying to ascertain from my reaction how her daughter had reacted to this news.  “Um…um..No” I stammered, feeling within myself two reactions.  On the one hand, I felt like Sarah was entitled to do whatever she wants with her time.  On the other hand, I felt sad for Sarah’s daughter since I now know the feeling of needing someone to watch your child and how great it is when grandparents can be the ones to provide that care. 

Over the years as I’ve watched my friends try to arrange the care of their own children, I’ve been surprised by the variety of orientations to care their own parents (i.e. the grandparents) have.  One friend’s mother, who lives close to her, rarely offers to watch my friends’ kids and is often unreliable (arrives late, forgets) when she does provide care.  Another friend bought a house right across the street from her parents and the grandparents provide a tremendous amount of care to her child. 

Why are there such differences?   In thinking about this question, I’ve been mulling over Candace Clarke’s notion of “sympathy margins.”  Sympathy margins are like lines of emotional credit which we extend to one another.  The largest margins, or extensions of sympathy, are usually reserved for one’s own family.  Yet, as Clark points out, there are limits to sympathy margins, even for family members.  For example, negative emotions can develop if individuals feel like those they extend lines of sympathy to have over used them or if they feel their offers of sympathy have never been sufficiently reciprocated.  Drawing from Clark then, is there such a thing as “Grandparenting Margins,”or lines of care grandparents offer?  Why do some grandparents seem to have large margins, like Marian Robinson, and other do not?  What cultural differences are at work that influence the shape of someone’s care margin?  Why do some grandparents willingly watch their grandkids every day, while others rarely offer to provide any care, while still others feel taken advantage of if they are expected to care for their grandchildren?  And how might larger social forces like race and social class shape someone’s grandparenting margin?


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3 Comments on “Grandparenting”

  1. Cameron Says:

    Fascinating. It makes me think of an article I read about a year ago about the “flying granny nannies” – grandparents who travel long-distances to provide childcare to their working children: This is, of course, class and race-based. The tradition in some communities is declining as children travel further away from home for work, and as grandparents require more care from their children than they can offer. What strikes me is how many of my undergraduates in my soc of family class simply ASSUME that their parents will fill this role. They have to, because otherwise their plans for combining career and family go up in smoke. I wonder, too, what will happen as more grandparents have to go back to work in this tough economy, and so aren’t available to be on call.

  2. Hovawart Says:

    My husband and I were brought up not to ask for help, and if we asked, we were told we should take care of ourselves. Thus, our parents did not help with their grandchildren, despite their resources of time and money.

    Yet our parents received an enormous amount of help from their own parents, our wonderful grandparents. My husband and I are so thankful to have had the chance to be so close to our own grandparents, an experience that sadly our own children never knew.

  3. buttinski Says:

    I’ve noted how many grandfathers are taking the lead as supplemental caregivers (on a daily, weekly or special occasion basis) and this makes sense to me — in part because my own mom (who raised 7 kids) made it clear she was totally finished with that part of her life and my dad (who had worked two or more jobs most of his life, factory work + others) was eager once he retired to do the things with the grandkids that he never did with his kids. The conflict between them was resolved by him going off to the kids houses to “babysit” and take them for special excursions while my mom did not participate. But I see the same in retired (male) professor colleagues, with the retired women professors instead throwing themselves into publications. But of course these are big overgeneralizations too!

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