Grandparents have become the social glue in modern family life — the support system that stops the whole rickety structure from collapsing. Here’s why….
Thousands of years of evolution have fine-tuned an infant’s screams to the exact pitch required to get a parents’ attention. Just to be on the safe side though, my two-year-old is cranking up the volume. Joe howls with a guttural violence that makes his little body shake. When I attempt to comfort him, he furiously shoves me away. The reason for this rage, for this nerve-shredding sound? His ten-month-old brother, Marc, just cadged a quick go on his xylophone.
Just as our eardrums begin to throb, my father-in-law plods into the bedlam and sizes up the scene. ‘Come on, mate,’ he says to Joe. ‘Want to see some trains?’
He scoops up Joe with one arm, picks up Marc with the other and plonks them both down on his lap. Seconds later, Joe’s tantrum is silenced by a YouTube video of vintage steam trains. The three of them sit happily for the next thirty minutes. Sanity is restored to the house — I’m even able to escape for work.
Here’s the thing: little kids love spending time with their grandparents and, thankfully, that feeling tends to be mutual. For some lucky households, this dynamic offers the chance of salvation. Grandparents have become the social glue in modern family life — the support system that stops the whole rickety structure from collapsing. Forget the tired stereotypes of fusty old creatures redolent of pipe smoke and Werther’s Originals, grandparents are, in fact, the grey-haired heroes of our time.
They’re also more vital than ever. Today’s parental landscape, after all, would make Don Draper shudder. Traditional gender stereotypes are dead with stay-at-home mums now an endangered species. The number of families in which both parents work continues to rise; in Australia, the number hovers around 64 per cent. Childcare may be ruinously expensive, but our mortgages are similarly inclined.
That mothers are no longer being lost to the workforce is, of course, a just and long overdue correction. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Two-income families are inevitably plunged into a maelstrom of extra complications. Whether it’s managing sick kids or rush-hour school-runs, the lack of a full-time at-home parent forces you into desperate solutions to stop domestic life morphing into some woeful hybrid of the Fyre Festival and Lord of the Flies.
The upshot of all this is greater parental strain. When the Pew Research Center (a US ‘fact tank’ that monitors the effects of social change) did a study on the functionality of family life, their findings were grimly familiar to every parent who darts about vainly trying to juggle their work and family commitments. In short, what Pew found was that working parents feel stressed, exhausted and rushed off their feet.
Grandparents can help to pick up the slack. They’ve emerged as the vital cogs in the domestic machine that keep things running, if not always smoothly—there are small kids involved here, remember—then at least formatted into a more tolerable form of anarchy.
Grandparents make it possible for parents to return to work. They alleviate some of the pressure, helping to defer your nervous breakdown and your nightly ‘self-medication’ tipping into full-blown alcoholism. They step into the breach to rescue you when work presentations collide with ballet-school pick-ups. In short, their support gives your family a chance of maintaining a semi-coherent daily existence.
But their influence goes way beyond practical support. Last night, I returned from work to find Joe stark naked by the flowerbeds clutching a hosepipe. His grandmother stood at his side, patiently directing his efforts, while he beamed with pride as he doused the hydrangeas. Afterwards, the pair retired to the garden bench to admire their efforts over an ice cream (the relentless distribution of sugary treats has, of course, been every grandmother’s modus operandi since the dawn of time, or at least the invention of the Kit-Kat).
And that’s why grandparents are so invaluable. They’re not gun-for-hire babysitters, they are family. As a result, they’re truly invested in the welfare of our children. They nurture them with love, affection and quality time while we flap about trying to do far too many things at once (and, often, none of them well).
Given the strength of this bond, it’s no wonder that grandparents are proven to be a huge formative influence on our kids. A Cornell University study found that nine out of 10 adult grandchildren felt their grandparents helped to shape their values and behaviours. Sure, on the surface, it looks like they’re just force-feeding your kids Tim Tams and letting them win at Connect 4. But in the process, they’re inoculating their brains with knowledge, family history, moral scruples and, let’s face it, slightly dubious views from a politically correct standpoint.
And thanks to technology, they don’t even have to live down the road to make their presence felt. My mother may live in England, but she still finds ways to interact. On the brink of her eighties, she’s hardly the most tech-savvy, but she still FaceTimes most mornings to check in on her grandsons while they eat breakfast in their highchairs.
On her last call, it was so cold in my mum’s house that she was wearing a woolly hat inside. I held the iPhone steady as she sang ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’—my two boys watching spellbound, the younger one absent-mindedly smearing a half-chewed mouthful of Weet-Bix into his hair. Breakfast over, Joe retreated to the sofa but pleaded for granny to sing ‘Ba, Ba Black Sheep’ once more. He was holding the phone, cradling my mother’s face in his hands, bewitched by her voice from the other side of the world. Already, she’s become a familiar presence in his life. In spite of that great distance, the connection is there.
My sons are lucky enough to still have three living grandparents. But my wife and I are lucky, too.