As the photographer of the family, I have noted previously that I rarely appear in photos other than as a reflection, but this is one of me in one of my other favourite roles, as a grandparent.

It’s one that I do actively, and with two of our three children and their families living interstate, I am more than happy to provide what I’ve just come back home from doing last week: occasional service as a fly-in-fly-out Nanna to my youngest grandchildren. I love them to bits. But, at the same time (and I hope they forgive me if they ever read this), I am not one of those grandparents (or, for that matter, casting my mind back a ways, one of those young parents) who simply love playing childish games (one word: Lego!) and reading childish books for hours, and hours, and hours. In fact, for those of us who feel that time is flying by too quickly and would like to slow it down, nothing does that more effectively than spending a clock-watching full day with a young child. How on earth can only ten minutes have gone by when it feels like at least two hours?

In short, I long ago discovered that it is possible to love being a grandparent (and a parent) and still find that the days can drag while caring for a little one. Fortunately (or so I like to believe) I’m a sufficiently good actor for my beloved darlings not to suspect a thing, and I know – as a grandparent – that at the end of the day, or at most a week, I’ll get a lot of my own life back again, while having bonded with children who greet me next time with hugs and kisses. And the delights of a loving relationship with those same children as they grow older are incalculable, and absolutely worth the time spent on their earlier days.

Nonetheless, while I am one of the many who have found that being a grandparent is a force of nature that gives us consummate joy, I wasn’t surprised by the tenor of an article that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2013, at exactly the time when I was on the verge of writing an earlier article on this subject (in itself the sort of thing that happens remarkably often).

The front page headline asked the question: “Are the grandkids holding you back?” It was promoting a story in the financial pages, and took up an issue that was perturbing some financial advisors. As they saw it, “retirees have a ‘sweet spot’ of about 10 years when they have both the energy and the financial resources to enjoy themselves but increasingly these golden years are being spent looking after grandchildren instead of doing the things they’ve been dreaming of.’

It is certainly true that grandparents are playing a significant role in caring for their grandchildren. Figures released in 2012 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for example, showed that “more Australian children are being cared for by their grandparents than by formal childcare providers.”

And such figures don’t include children being raised by their grandparents. According to one Sydney Herald report, “in the [Australian] 2006 census there were 24,000 children aged up to 14 who lived full-time with their grandparents,…due to parental death, addictions or mental illness. When thousands of older children are included, the phenomenon is significant for governments and families.” Such grandparents have been magnificent in stepping up to sacrifice a substantial part of their lives, to save the lives of their grandchildren; and they deserve much more formal support than they are currently getting.

More typically, however, many grandparents are grappling with the dilemma of wanting to live their life while – at the same time – wanting to provide their children with the practical help that they need in these days when both parents are often working, and for whom not only are formal child care costs high, but there is also the concern that their young children are missing out on the loving contact of family members.

I can look at this issue from both sides, as I was the recipient of a substantial amount of just such invaluable help for our young children, enabling me to take on part-time work; and so had always resolved that I would do the same for our children. And am now willingly doing so. But we have resolved that dilemma in the sorts of realistic ways that experts are now advising are a sensible course of action, with a mix of communication, limit-setting, and providing time to plan for back-up help when needed.

So, for us, it is heart-warming to be looking after grandchildren regularly, but – for us – two days a week with our local grandchildren is the limit unless there are exceptional circumstances. For the rest of the week, there are things that we want to do; and quiet times that we like to savour. And when we grandparents are planning to be away, we give long range warning that it’s going to happen, in time for substitute carers to be arranged. This approach, it turns out, is very much along the lines advocated by National Seniors. According to the article in the financial pages, its chief executive, Michael O’Neill, has pointed out that for parents who want to help, to a degree, “the key question is getting the balance right. Where you draw the line is up to individual grandparents to decide but they shouldn’t feel guilty – that’s part of the respectful conversation that the whole family should have…. It’s about saying ‘You’ve got your [life], I want a bit of the same – I want to lead my life fully as well. Part of that is being connected to my grandchildren but I also want to do other things.’”

This is not always an easy conversation to have, and in England in 2012 a group of grandparents set up their own support website, grannynet.co.uk, to advise the older generation on how to stand firm. For grown-up offspring still unclear as to how the new social landscape lies, the group aimed to create a Grandparents’ Charter, a set of guidelines for grandparents and parents to cover thorny issues such as how much childcare it is appropriate to ask a grandparent to do, whether parents should offer to pay, and whether a grandparent should be free to discipline and reward grandchildren as they choose.

While that site is no longer being maintained, its advice is still accessible on the internet, and its home page focuses on the complexity of grand-parenting, pointing out that it “is a hugely rewarding experience but it does come with its challenges;” and, according to one of the founders of the website, “children can end up pushing it, asking for the sacrifice of increasingly more commitment and time until grandparents end up feeling abused….. Not all grandparents are willing to make such a sacrifice…. So it’s vital to establish the rules to which you will all adhere.”

And getting a balanced outcome is a win-win situation for all, including – whether or not they might fully see it at the time – the parents, who are getting the bonus of role models for an approach to grand-parenting that they might well find useful as they become grandparents in their turn.

Grandparents out there please share with us your stories about caring for your grandchildren and how you manage to maintain lifestyle balance.

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