When we reached retirement, I thought life would be relaxed. We spent our lives struggling to bring up two sons and gave them as much of our time (and money) as would allow them to fulfil their dreams. I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood so I always wanted them to know how important and loved they were. However, they are now in their 30s and seem money-obsessed and self-centred – my eldest son is due to move into his own house with his partner nearby and we are already being sounded out for long-term childcare should they start a family.
I want to do my own thing now and not be in a position where I am on call. I love the idea of more grandchildren but worry about the cost and time involved and wonder whether the effort to bring up my sons has rather tainted the idea of looking after grandchildren. To make matters worse, our first grandchild lives away and has grandparents who are rich and besotted by her, whisking her and their daughter off on holidays abroad.
I don’t know how to deal with these alien feelings I have and worry that it is rooted in our own early childcare struggle. B, via email
The most important thing to remember is that if you don’t want to look after your grandchildren, you don’t have to. It really is that simple. You might want to, when more grandchildren arrive, but you might not.
However, this request from your son so far in advance is enough to make anyone feel pressurised and suffocated. The obvious answer is to see how you feel when your son and his wife have children, if indeed they do.
Don’t promise anything – you’re not obliged to. It’s their journey as parents now, not yours. Anyway, the reality is that when your daughter-in-law has children she may not want you to do the childcare nearly as much as she thinks (if the request comes from her).
What is interesting is the dissonance between how you want to be as a grandmother and what you think will be expected of you. How the other set of grandparents do it is up to them; they are different people with different lives. But you seem to feel guilty and I think if you could work out why, it would help you to be more confident grandparents.
Geraldine Bedell, the editor of Gransnet (gransnet.com), has this to say: “Lots of people who had a hard time bringing up their own children look forward to having time to themselves, and it is unreasonable to expect you to childmind [your grandchildren]. The important thing to remember, however, is that having grandchildren is different to having your own – you can hand them back.”
She also advises not to forget that “Many people find grandparenting really fun and less tiring than being a parent. You may find you actually want to be involved.”
Sometimes a situation or a remark can cause us to have a quite violent reaction to it, far beyond what the situation or remark merits. And this is because it taps into something within us that is unresolved or scares us. This is what I think has happened here.
You seem to associate early childhood with varying degrees of unhappiness and struggle, both as a child and as a parent. Now the cycle is starting again with the next generation.
I think you are worried that being a grandmother in those early days will also be difficult: that it’ll be a hat-trick. I think you’ve managed to avoid these feelings until now because your first grandchild doesn’t live close by. But now that your son is moving near to you and there is talk – and it is just talk at this stage – of a grandchild who will be close by, this is all making you face up to something that you have thus far managed to submerge. Look at it as a good thing – it’s better to work through these feelings now, when it’s all still in the abstract.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think having another grandchild will be nearly as hard as you think; you may find it a healing experience. You may excel at it. However, none of this means you should be doing the childcare if you don’t want to. It might help you to go and talk through these feelings with someone unconnected with the family – aft.org.uk, itsgoodtotalk.org.uk, psychotherapy.org, or try your GP as they may have a resident counsellor.
This was first published in the Guardian Family section on 22 March 2013.