Grandparents: working out your role
When a grandchild arrives, many people look forward to a new and important role in supporting their grandchild’s parents. This can range from practical support like cooking meals to emotional support like listening to worries.
Some grandparents are also keen to play a role in looking after their grandchildren when their adult children are working, studying or doing other activities.
As you think about your new role, it’s important to consider your own needs and preferences, as well as those of your extended family. This is especially important if you have grandchildren in more than one family.
For example, you might still be working. Or you might be retired, planning to travel and looking forward to time to yourself. It’s also important to consider your health and energy levels. No-one benefits if you try to do too much.
And there are practical and emotional considerations too, like how close you live to your grandchild and how well you get on with your grandchild’s parents.
If you have a partner, it can be good to talk about how you both see the grandparenting role and how your grandparenting responsibilities can be shared.
It’s OK for you to decide on what and how much you want to do as a grandparent – and this might change as other things change. If you can be open and clear with your grandchild’s parents about your choices, it will help everybody understand where the boundaries are.
Sometimes your grandchild’s parents will need time and space to work out their own roles as parents or to bond with their new baby. Even if you really want to be involved, at these times you might need to back off a little bit.
Thinking about boundaries as a grandparent
It can be a good idea to decide on some boundaries around your role as a grandparent. This means thinking about what you want to do and what you can do. You can start thinking even before your grandchild is born. Here are some ideas:
- Talk to friends who are grandparents about what they find manageable and enjoyable.
- Decide how much responsibility you’re comfortable with. For example, you might be keen to spend time with your grandchild while their parents are around, but you’re not ready to look after them on your own just yet. Or you might not want to look after them at all – and that’s OK.
- If your other children have or are planning to have children, think about how you can spend time with all your grandchildren and support their parents while still having some time for yourself.
- If you’re working and want to help with child care for your grandchild, talk with your employer about flexible work arrangements – for example, rostered days off, personal leave or working from home.
Talking with your grandchild’s parents about roles and boundaries
Here are some ideas for talking about roles and boundaries with your grandchild’s parents:
- Choose a time when you’re all calm and relaxed. You don’t have to make a special time to talk, though – you can bring up the issue at a time that’s good for everyone.
- Ask parents what sort of help they’d like from you and listen to their ideas.
- Share what you think you can and can’t do. It’s easier to offer less support to start with and increase it later if you’re able to.
- If you want to be more involved, say so – but be sensitive to the needs of the new parents. For example, ‘I’d love to look after Frankie while you go out for a coffee, but I understand that you might not be ready to leave her just yet’.
- Speak up if you feel that the new parents want more than you can manage. For example, ‘I can look after Riley on Tuesday afternoons, but I have things to do on other days’.
- Plan for emergencies and unexpected events. For example, be specific about when it’s OK to call you at short notice, or whether you want to be listed as a contact at your grandchild’s child care service.
- Suggest a trial period if you’re concerned about taking on too much. For example, ‘Let’s try it for a month and see how it goes’.
Boundaries are worth thinking about, even if you live a long way away from your grandchild and their parents. For example, if you organise a visit to see the family, you might want to balance looking after your grandchild with spending time with the whole family and doing things just for yourself.
Your changing role as a grandparent
Your role is likely to change as your grandchild gets older. This is partly because your commitments might change and also because your grandchild’s needs and interests will change too.
This means that even if you can’t or don’t want to help so much when your grandchild is little, you might be able to look forward to doing more as they get older.
For example, when your grandchild reaches school age, they might be keen to share interests and activities. So if you’re a grandparent who wants to pass on a love of reading, teach your grandchild about gardening or take your grandchild on special outings, this might be a perfect fit.
Teenagers and adult grandchildren value your support and interest as they become more independent. You might be able to give them different points of view as they work out who they are and what they want to be.
Your role might also change if your grandchild’s family changes – for example, when they welcome a new baby or a parent starts a new job. This can lead to the family needing more or less support from you, depending on the situation.
I want to be that special person that when things aren’t maybe going quite as well with Mum and Dad or something, they’ve got someone else that they know who’s there for them as well.
– Isabel, grandmother of 4 grandchildren aged 7 months to 11 years