Elsie Parsons and Lynn McCann have a lot in common. They’re both Sunday school-teaching, choir-singing members of Powell River (B.C.) United, a few hours north of Vancouver. They’re both in their mid-60s. And, like a growing number of Canadian grandparents, they’ve both stepped up to care for their grandchildren — though for very different reasons.
For Parsons, all four of her adult children and their partners are professionals, dedicated to growing their careers. She and her husband care for their grandchildren on their hobby farm before and after school four days a week, and often during daytime hours for the younger ones. The children help care for the sheep and gardens, enjoy campfires with Grandma and Grandpa and ride their bikes off homemade jumps.
“It’s so much nicer than having them in a daycare or [their parents] having to take the day off if the child is sick,” says the energetic Parsons, who, at 67, kick-boxes two evenings a week. Holding her youngest grandchild, one-year-old Vinnie, on her lap, she adds, “And it means I can have a deeper relationship with the kids.”
That “deeper relationship” costs a lot of time. But for Parsons, caring for children — her own, plus 15 foster kids — has been part of her life for 40 years.
For McCann, conversely, the full weight of grandparenting was thrust upon her nearly 20 years ago, when she was 45. Her stepdaughter struggled with addiction and poverty and couldn’t care for her two toddlers. They were about to be apprehended by the Province of Alberta when McCann and her husband agreed to take them in. “I went into my bedroom, closed my door and let out a primal scream,” she recalls. “I knew that this was the death of my future.”
Both children have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Their clothes arrived in garbage bags.
McCann, a recreation therapist, gave up her career, burned through her retirement savings, put on 45 kilograms — and embraced her calling. Nearing 50, she became a Brownie leader, a soccer coach and the Sunday school superintendent; she ferried the kids to speech-language specialists and behavioural counsellors; she learned about FASD and became an advocate for the children’s success in school. “When people heard I’m raising my grandchildren, they’d say, ‘That’ll keep you young.’ I’d say, ‘No, it keeps you exhausted.’”
Super-grandmas like Parsons and McCann are the exception in this country. According to a 2011 Statistics Canada survey, just 28 percent of Canadian parents relied on grandparents, other relatives or nannies to provide regular care for their children aged four and under. However, given the rising financial and time pressures on today’s gen-X and millennial parents — and the increasing cost of institutional childcare — today’s boomers are often the most obvious source of relief. Is it fair for stressed-out parents to expect grandparents to play a significant role in raising their grandchildren? What exactly do 21st-century grandparents owe their kids and grandkids?
Back in the day, tradition provided a clear model for families. Rev. Gary Lim, the minister at Edmonton’s Chinese United, says in mainland China, grandparents would care for grandchildren while the parents worked, and the parents would care for grandparents as they aged — all in one multigenerational home. Everyone owed each other care.
It’s “a good model — grandparents caring for grandchildren — because you have someone you trust to pass on the values and the language,” Lim says.
This model is, of course, not unique to China. Family-based caregiving, up and down the age ladder, is a hallmark of most traditional Asian, European, African, Latin and Aboriginal cultures. In Canada and elsewhere, this model has crumbled over time as waves of generations left farms for cities. Some families have retained that easy reciprocity; most others have not.
A 2011 Statistics Canada survey revealed that just five percent of children aged 14 and under lived with a grandparent in the household. Most other families are scattered — mine included. As a mother of two children, ages five and eight, I get a bit wistful for ever-present grandmas like Parsons and McCann. McCann is exhausted. So am I.
My husband and I have 12 parents between us (due to adoption and remarriage), and while the boomers in our lives have offered excellent and generous support, it’s occasional rather than day-to-day. Some of them have died. Others live across the province or the country. Others are still working. It’s no one’s fault.
Many of my peers, though, possess these fabled super-grandparents — trusted intimates who swoop in to provide time for the parents to nap, exercise, date each other and pursue their careers without the financial drain of institutional daycare. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that all the super-grandparents I know are either Aboriginal or immigrants: Vietnamese, Fijian, Filipino, Italian, Bulgarian, South African and even a New Zealander.
Among peers of my own ancestry — those of long-forgotten western European origins — the role of grandparents is a touchy subject. So contentious, in fact, that I couldn’t find anyone willing to speak on the record about his or her own non-caregiving parents.
But off the record? “When my son was born, my mom and dad said very clearly, ‘Look, we’re not the kind of grandparents who are going to look after your kids. You have to figure this out,’” says a mom of two children, both under six. She works days and her husband works evenings in order to make childcare and finances work. “Don’t ask,” another grandparent told a couple with two kids under four, who have since made the difficult decision to scrape by on one income until both kids are in school.
It should be noted: all of these grandparents live near their grandchildren, and all are healthy and retired.
This anti-caregiving stance is not unusual. According to a 2012 study by the University of Chicago, 40 percent of American grandparents had provided less than 50 hours of care a year to their grandchildren during a 10-year period (1998-2008) preceding the study.
And a 2008 survey by Statistics Canada found that only about a sixth of women and men aged 45 and older had provided unpaid care to children outside their household in the past week. It’s likely that most of these children were grandchildren; however, survey respondents also included people without grandchildren. The percentages of those providing care would presumably be higher if the survey looked only at grandparents.
Even in Hong Kong, where Lim is from, the traditional model is shifting. “It’s so diverse,” he says, explaining that there, multigenerational families have given way to nuclear families separated from grandparents, due to the British influence.
In his Edmonton congregation, where most people in the pews are grandparents in their 70s and 80s, many of the families have maintained the traditional values of respect and language learning, but the intergenerational care model is evaporating, he says. Grandparents often live far away from grandchildren. His parents, for example, live in Hong Kong, and his children only see them once a year. “The kids change a lot between visits. So there’s not much connection there for them. Even though they love to see each other, without daily contact, the impact is much less [than in the traditional models].”
'As families become increasingly stressed because of poverty, grandparents become instrumental caregivers.'
To understand the changing role of grandparents, the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family commissioned a report in 2000, which was co-authored by James Gladstone, a professor in the school of social work at McMaster University in Hamilton.
The report came to the rather fuzzy conclusion that “grandparenthood is characterized by diversity, by complexity and by change. . . . It is difficult to identify clear expectations surrounding grandparenthood since the role of grandparents in the family has few normative guides.” How closely grandparents and grandchildren live to one another, their ethnicity, health status and income, and the relationship of the grandparents with their adult children and children’s spouses all make a difference.
What’s changed since the paper was released in 2000? In an interview, Gladstone identifies a 21st-century pressure: “As families become increasingly stressed because of poverty, grandparents become instrumental caregivers.”
But he also notes that in our culture, parents are primarily responsible for their children. Divorce, poverty or other social challenges shouldn’t automatically entail the caregiving or financial support of grandparents. “I don’t think grandparents owe anything. They’ve done their work. They’ve raised their children. . . . There’s no sense of ‘I owe them’ or ‘they owe me.’”
That’s balderdash, according to one gen-X academic who’s working to change how the generations see each other. Paul Kershaw, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, says today’s parents are contorting themselves to adapt to radically different times than their own parents faced.
While boomer grandmas and grandpas are enjoying the fruit of their own inexpensive university educations, flush job markets, affordable real estate and mushrooming house values, Kershaw’s research and advocacy group, Generation Squeeze, argues that their children — many of whom are now parents — are being crushed by spiking tuition and debt, unaffordable homes, lower starting wages, sparse opportunities and childcare that can cost thousands of dollars per month.
What do grandparents owe their children and grandchildren? Well, where to begin, he says. “First of all . . . recognize your own good fortune at having been born when you were. Older generations owe those who follow the chance to live up to their potential, the chance at opportunities and help saving the planet.”
In Generation Squeeze’s March 2015 report — published to coincide with the federal budget — Kershaw points out that governments spend less than $12,000 on benefits and services per citizen 45 and under, compared to over $33,000 per year for those 65 and over.
Even more eye-popping, he documents the change in household incomes and housing prices from when the boomers raised their children, to what today’s parents are earning and spending. Gen X’s household earnings are up about 12 percent in constant dollars over their boomer parents’ — but now with two parents working as the norm, rather than one.
Which means they must pay for childcare. Or depend on grandparents.
Mom Jennifer Green, for example, credits her own mother for her ability to stay in her advertising career. Her mother moved from Vancouver to Toronto to care for grandson Ryker, 4. “I always had a big job; I always bite off as much as I can chew,” says Green. “When you’re a professional businesswoman, the only other option is to have a full-time nanny.”
Her mom does it, she says, “for pure love.” But this arrangement doesn’t stem from a traditional family model. Green and her mother had a rocky relationship before Ryker was born. While pregnant, Green sent her mom a letter saying that she wanted to put the tension behind them, so her mom could have a relationship with her grandson — the kind of relationship Green didn’t have with her own extended family.
“It was an olive branch,” Green explains. “At that moment, she decided to do whatever it took to be a grandma. She’s been incredible. She gave up her life. I don’t think a lot of people would do it.”
Would you? It’s summertime. If you’re a grandparent, do you know where your grandchildren are? They’re not in school; who’s paying for their camps or daycare? And who should be? As the Vanier Institute points out, there’s no model for this. Grandparenting in the 21st century is characterized by diversity.
Through casual conversations I’ve started over the course of researching this feature, I’ve learned that family relationships are often tense and expectations ill-defined. The sense of reciprocity that once governed family caregiving relationships has evaporated. In its place, it seems, are generations who have desperate needs — for childcare and for eldercare — but who are often hesitant to rely on one another. Instead, we look to institutional care and pay the price.
There are exceptions. McCann, for one, didn’t have much of a choice in stepping up as a caregiving grandma. “Would I do it all again, knowing the toll it took?” McCann pauses. “I would. The other option is not acceptable.” Now, her grandson, 23, who has been in and out of jail, is caring for his girlfriend’s daughter, and “doing a beautiful job.” Her granddaughter, 21, has two stepchildren and “is doing all the right things.” Given the extreme difficulties of shepherding two kids with FASD into adulthood, she is satisfied that her choices and sacrifices mattered.
Parsons, on the other hand, continues to be a super-grandma, letting her love for children flow through the matriarchal role she’s chosen. “I think of The Servant Song: ‘Let me be as Christ to you.’ All of that fits into being a part of this family, and it fits into what fostering is about, too.”
As for me, I’ve also learned that this is largely a story about women. As much as fathers and grandfathers play into the complex dynamic of negotiating care, they are, generally speaking, not the central actors. Therefore, “What do grandparents owe their children and grandchildren?” could be asked differently: “What do boomer women — who fought for the right to have it all — owe their daughters, who are drowning under the full weight of having it all?”
Maybe care. Maybe money. Maybe nothing.
And maybe everything. As someone who has experienced that sense of drowning first-hand, I can’t imagine my future self standing by while my adult son or daughter struggles with the overwhelming demands of work and babies and mortgage payments.
What will we gen-X grandmas owe our daughters? Sympathy. Let’s start there.
Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.