Your Plan to Rely on Grandma for Child Care Might Not Be 100% Solid

Your Plan to Rely on Grandma for Child Care Might Not Be 100% Solid Photo: iStockphoto
Your Plan to Rely on Grandma for Child Care Might Not Be 100% Solid Photo: iStockphoto


  • Some working parents are discovering that grandparents aren’t as available to babysit as they had hoped—and when they are, it’s complicated

Parents who expect that their own mom or dad can easily jump in to babysit are facing a new reality.

Some working parents, confronting limited and expensive child care, are discovering that grandparents aren’t as available to help with child care as they had hoped. Lots of grandparents still have paying jobs, busy personal lives well into their later years, or live far away. Even when schedules align, tensions can arise over child-rearing, from food choices to discipline to screen time. It helps when grandparents can leave the parenting to the parents.

“In our minds, our grandparents were around for us, so we expected our[parents] would be around for our kids," says Libby Ward, 34 years old, a mom and maternal wellness advocate in Hamilton, Ontario.

Ward runs Diary of an Honest Mom, a social-media platform geared mainly toward young moms between the ages of 25 to 45. More than one third of her Instagram followers polled last month said they don’t get the help they expected from their parents, says Ward.

About 35% of the 67 million grandparents in the U.S. are still working, according to Krista Westrick-Payne, assistant director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. Retirees are often occupied with travel, exercise and volunteer work.

“Some feel more is expected than they can give," says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit promoting intergenerational programs.

Donne Davis, an involved grandmother of three from Menlo Park, Calif., and founder of GaGa Sisterhood, a social network for grandmothers, has had to say no at times when her daughter asked her to babysit for the weekend and Davis had meetings. “I felt guilty that I had other plans," says Davis, who lives two hours away from her daughter.

Even when grandparents are available, clashing parenting styles can lead to friction. Nearly half of grandparents surveyed said they have disagreed, usually with their adult children, over how to handle tantrums, mealtime and screen time, in an online survey of 1,000 grandparents who provide 15 hours of care each week. The survey was commissioned by Zero to Three, a nonprofit focused on early development.

Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero to Three, says 94% of grandparents surveyed say they love caring for their grandchildren, but “not all is rosy, all the time."

Clear communications can ward off tensions. Discussing what rules are nonnegotiable—naptime, for instance—and which aren’t—after-school cookies—helps, as does expressing gratitude.

Elisha Vukovic and her husband bought their house in Redwood City, Calif., to be close to both sets of parents. Although she has a nanny for her 2-year-old son, Luka, she relies on her mom, Pamela McGraw, in the evenings, weekends and if the nanny gets sick.

“My mom comes in to save the day," says Vukovic, 33.

McGraw, who worked long hours and had a nanny for her own children, researched new parenting styles when her daughter was pregnant. “It was clear to me I needed to let go of my old, ‘This is how I used to do things,’" she says. That mind-set has helped, along with clear and open communications—her daughter makes detailed notes about Luka’s routines and preferences. McGraw also often keeps quiet, rather than voicing opinions, and doesn’t step in unless she is asked to help.

The relationship can work well when grandparents help provide care but leave the child-raising to the parents.

Frank Williams, 70, and his wife help get their 6-year-old grandson on and off the school bus, while their daughter, a single mom and math teacher, works. In the evenings, Williams plays hide-and-seek with his grandson and they chase each other around their home in White Plains, N.Y.

“I’m definitely not the rule-setter or disciplinarian," says Williams, who started a Grandpas United mentoring program. He says he leaves discipline up to his daughter so he can play with his grandson, encourage him and be a positive and supportive male figure.

Dana Malstaff, 42, moved from the Midwest to be closer to her parents in Carlsbad, Calif. Malstaff, a mother of two and founder of Boss Mom, a company that helps moms grow online businesses, works from home.

She asks her recently retired mom, Sheri Roque, 66, to pick up the kids at school or daycare when needed. Her dad offered to take her son to baseball practices. The couple have their grandkids on weekend sleepovers, all of which makes Malstaff grateful.

They’ve had differences. Malstaff tries to accommodate her kids’ food preferences, even if it means making different meals for her 7- and 9-year-olds. When her parents babysit, her mom makes one meal and offers a peanut butter sandwich if they don’t like it. Or she will tell her daughter what is planned in case Malstaff wants to stop and bring Chick-fil-A.

“We’ve annoyed each other," says Malstaff, adding that they have resolved small differences over the years and their bond is tight.

Roque loves being with her grandkids, doing craft projects and exploring nature, and feels they have learned from her. She’s also come to appreciate her daughter’s parenting style, and the way Malstaff encourages her children to be a part of the conversation.

“They discuss everything. I came from a time where you told your kids what they had to do and they did it," says Roque. “I guess it’s a new way and it’s good. Her kids are really thoughtful and empathetic."

Write to Clare Ansberry at

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