A new role for grandparents?

  • Deborah Condon

(Posted 24/07/2013)

Despite the fact that women now make up a sizeable part of Ireland's workforce and many of these women have children, until now, little has been known about who provides care to infants when their mothers return to work.

During the boom, many crèches did a roaring trade and grandparents were left to hopefully enjoy their retirement, safe in the knowledge that they had already raised their children.

However, the economic crash has placed overwhelming pressure on today's parents. Mortgages, rent, bills and taxes still have to be paid, but now for many, on a much smaller budget.

In response to this, it appears that grandparents have now taken on a new and unexpected role - childminder to their grandchildren. Most of us probably know of someone's grandparents fulfilling this role, they may even be our own parents. But now a new report on childcare choices for infants in Ireland appears to confirm the major role grandparents are playing in the care of their children's children.

The report is based on the ongoing study, Growing Up in Ireland, and focuses on the choices made in relation to childcare when a mother returns to work following maternity leave. These findings are based on interviews that were carried out on the parents of over 11,000 nine-month-olds.

Currently, employed women in Ireland are entitled to 26 weeks' paid maternity leave and up to 16 weeks of additional unpaid maternity leave.

The report shows that while few mothers return to work before their child is six months old, many return when the child is six or seven months old. This suggests that the duration of paid maternity leave has a key role to play in the employment choices of women after having a baby.

This finding is similar to other countries with paid maternity leave.

While the majority of women who work before childbirth take paid maternity leave, just a small proportion also take unpaid leave. These tend to have higher levels of education and income.

Overall, mothers who have high levels of education are more likely to return to work compared to mothers with low levels of education.

Meanwhile, those who return to work before their child is six months old are more likely to be young mothers or self-employed.

By the time a baby reaches the age of nine months in Ireland, almost 40% are in regular childcare that does not involve a parent.

And this is where it gets interesting, because among these, the most common type of childminder is a relative, most often a grandparent. In fact, 42% of nine-month-olds in non-parental childcare are looked after by relatives, usually their grandparents.

This is followed by non-relatives (31%), usually childminders, and centre-based care (27%), such as crèches.

The report notes that economic circumstances ‘often play a key role in a family's use of childcare'.

In the past, ‘more advantaged/higher-income families tended to use non-familial childcare, with disadvantaged families using care by relatives'.

However, it is probably safe to say that this has changed in Ireland in recent years. For example, middle-class families, who would previously have been viewed as financially secure, are often now termed the ‘coping class', because while they are able to pay their bills, many are left with little or nothing at the end of the month.

But because they can pay their bills - for now anyway - they are, some believe, more unfairly targeted by austerity measures than others. As a result, many have had to reconsider their childcare options.

Joan is a 63-year-old grandmother of three, who like many other grandparents, decided to offer her son and his wife some help when it came to minding their children aged five, four and almost two.

"It is not something I ever thought I would be doing, but in the end I offered to help with their childcare because they have such a big mortgage like so many young people now," she explains.

As her oldest grandchild is in school, she looks after the younger two every Friday from 8am to 3pm ‘and when ever they are sick'.

She openly admits that even though she is only minding them for one day a week, she is ‘pretty exhausted' by the end of that day and does not believe she would be able to do it if she was older.

"Most definitely not. I sometimes see grandmothers who are struggling to walk out pushing buggies and I don't think it's fair on them or the child. But what parent isn't going to help out their child?" she comments.

The report notes ‘several possible reasons' why care by relatives is a popular option.

"Parents may place more trust in their own relatives, particularly their own parents, and prefer a home-based setting, particularly for infants, that is similar to their own home, perhaps quieter, and where they may be less likely to pick up common childhood infections from other children," it said.

It also points to the practical benefits of such an arrangement, such as the fact that relatives ‘are usually cheaper (or free) than professional childcare and are likely to be more flexible in terms of times a child can be left or collected'. Or as in the case with Joan, they are willing to look after children even when they are sick.

However, this type of care may not be available to everyone. For example, family
members may not live close enough or be able or willing to provide the level of care required.

"Alternatively, some parents may have a preference for a particular childminder who already looks after their older children or who is prepared to come to the family home. Parents may also prefer to use a crèche because of the presence of qualified staff or the wider range of facilities and activities that a commercial operation may be able to offer over a home-based setting," the report points out.

Of course, a number of factors come into play when choosing childcare. The report notes that in relation to the child, one key factor is whether there are siblings or not. Parents with more than one child are more likely to choose non-relatives to look after their children. The report acknowledges that this could simply be due to older grandparents being reluctant or unable to care for more than one child.

Meanwhile, when it came to the mother, age appears to play a big role in the choice of childcare. Younger mothers - under the age of 25 - tend to opt for relatives, while mothers over the age of 35 are more likely to opt for childminders or crèches.

And of course, as with everything in this country, income plays a key role in childcare choice, with lower-income families more likely to opt for relatives and higher-income families more likely to opt for crèches.

The report notes that among mothers whose main source of childcare was provided by a relative, ‘they were divided between some who actively chose it as their preferred option and those who were driven largely by financial constraints'.

However, the report adds that despite the reduced likelihood of them providing care for larger families, grandparents ‘are a key source of childcare' in Ireland today.


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