“My grandchildren are my world,” writes a woman on social media, summing up a certain type of grandparent. There are, however, two ways of looking at it and I see many whose worlds revolve around their grandchildren because they have no choice. I used to chat with them at the school gate. If their families were not strictly “the rural poor,” they were certainly of the group Theresa May described as “just about managing”: both parents had to work and grandparents took up the slack, unless they were still of working age, in which case arrangements were more haphazard.
I see many whose worlds revolve around their grandchildren because they have no choice
Because I had my last child late, I was as old as some school-gate grandmothers who had become parents when very young. If I found having a child in middle age tiring, how much more so did these women, looking after several? Not to mention the school holidays, when they were responsible for these grandchildren every weekday, without any time for themselves. If they wanted to meet a friend or attend the weekly market, they had to take the grandchildren with them.
I know plenty of grandparents who, having worked hard for decades, look forward to retirement and, while still fit, doing whatever they like: traveling the world, taking up bridge, watching lots of TV shows, volunteering. They are happy to see their grandchildren regularly, but in a fun way, for treats and outings, and do not plan to provide regular childcare. They have done their share of that. Of course they would step up in an emergency but it’s hard on those grandparents who can’t enjoy their retirement because of being permanently in loco parentis.
Naturally they love their grandchildren but this is not about love, it is about fairness. Families who simply could not manage without two incomes are one thing but those who would just have to tighten their belts a bit are another. I had no grandparental support because, of the two still alive, my mother-in-law lived in Canada and my father was useless and also distant. I did not write again until my first daughter was five and in the school holidays only during the few mornings that I got in some help. My husband did more than his fair share, but he was at work all day. We did not struggle, but neither did we have any spare money for many years.
The law does not give grandparents automatic rights to be in their grandchildren’s lives unless a domestic situation is serious enough to call in social services and apply to the courts. They cannot prevent the grandchildren being taken to live in another country or becoming part of another family relationship. They do not get automatic custody in the event of death or accident and if the grandchildren refuse to see them, they cannot force the issue.
With this number of downsides, who would have grandchildren at all? I always thought I had no particular wish to do so, though I was not against the idea until, after eight years of marriage, my daughter produced a girl. I was anxious during her pregnancy and labor, which I suppose was the parental norm, but I did not, could not, imagine what I would feel about my first grandchild. Plenty of friends warned me that I would become immediately besotted, to the extent that not even the joy of my own babies’ arrivals would matter as much. Apparently this is how they had all felt.
When I entered the curtained-off hospital cubicle, my daughter was standing beside her bed, the baby lying on it, wriggling off attempts to put her into a cardigan. Grandparents have no rights, but in any case, it never occurred to me simply to scoop her up. I asked if I could.
When she tucked her head into the curve between my neck and shoulder as they do, I was overwhelmed by love of a very new and different kind, not the rather frightened, disbelieving love I knew on holding my own babies. It took me aback. I left the ward a changed person.
Now my younger daughter is expecting a baby in April, her first and the first boy in my family for five generations. I have seen the scan photo of him in utero, aged twenty weeks, and already he has my heart. I know him so well and yet I don’t. I know I love him yet I suspect this is nothing compared with the love I am sure to feel the first time I hold him.
But, “my grandchildren are my world?” No — only a part of it.