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The Grandparent Trap: The Cost of Raising Our Kids’ Kids

Seniors across Canada are being recruited to help raise their grandkids. But at what cost?

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The Grandparent Trap: The Cost of Raising Our Kids' KidsIllustrations by Katty Maurey

My parents are living the boomer dream. They’re both in their mid-60s and retired. My father put in 32 years as an air force officer, plus another seven in the private sector while battling through two bouts of cancer. My mother stayed at home until I started university, then worked happily as a customer service rep for 10 years. These days, they love spending time with their grandkids-there are eight, between me, my brother and my sister-and they’re pleased to take them for the occasional sleepover or drive into Toronto from the suburbs to help out if we’re stuck. But my parents also spend three months in Florida each winter and another four at their cottage near Peterborough, Ont. When they’re at home, their calendar is packed.

After the birth of my first child, it didn’t occur to me to ask whether my parents would trade in their freedom to become full-time childminders, because I knew the answer: no way. My folks are comfortably entrenched in the “kid, you’re on your own” camp. “We love them, but we don’t want to be tied down. We’ve already raised our family,” says my mom now. A big sticking point: being an official caregiver means becoming a de facto disciplinarian. My mother lived under the same roof as her grandmother in the 1950s and often took her kindness for granted. Mom wants her grandkids to consider time with her to be special-a treat.

According to a 2013 University of Alberta report, my parents’ position is losing traction. Twenty-two per cent of seniors ages 65 to 74 currently pitch in with child care, along with nine per cent of people over the age of 75. All told, Statistics Canada reports that Canadian grandparents-most of them women-devote four million hours a week to unpaid child care.
Their reasons for doing so vary wildly-from the joy of being around kids to cultural mores to a desire to be useful. Of course, there’s also the guilt factor, born from watching their children struggle to achieve the same standard of living they had. Today’s under-45s are caught in an economic double whammy that means we have to struggle to achieve comparable financial stability. The so-called Squeeze Generation is working long­er hours for less money than adults a generation ago, with little long-term security or pension prospects. At the same time, we are grappling with crushing student debt loads and large mortgages, thanks to record-high housing prices: the national average sits at more than $400,000 today, compared to less than $160,000 in 1999.

For Squeezers, chasing what our parents had means putting the kids in daycare: three-quarters of all couples with dependent children have two incomes, up from just over one-third in 1976. On average, parents pay $9,000 a year for infants and $8,000 a year for preschoolers, according to the Toronto-based Childcare Resource and Research Unit-if we’re lucky enough to get a spot in the first place, which leaves many of us looking hopefully, even desperately, to our parents.

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As boomers begin to retire, a massive demographic shift is also under way. “The stereotype is that anyone who reaches the grandparent age is just headed for a rocking chair,” says Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP). “But grandparents today are different. They’re a little more self-actualizing.” Translation: members of the Me Generation-many of whom are healthier and wealthier than any previous crop of retirees-worked for decades and plan to wring every drop of pleasure out of their retirement years, with a to-do list that includes travel, leisure, volunteerism and, yes, spending time with family. “While they were bringing up their own children, they were just getting it done,” says Eng. “Now they have the time to play with kids.”

That’s certainly the case for Shirley Ritchie. When her three children were young, she worked weekends as an operating-room and ER nurse, leaving little room for family fun. Then, at 59, a blocked artery ended her career. A few years later, her son David and his wife, Jacquie, began searching for daycare for their two boys in Brampton, Ont. Shirley lived nearby, so she volunteered her services. Her husband, Len, retired a year later and began helping out, too.

Their friends thought they were overdoing it. Instead of sipping wine, playing euchre and planning vacations, the Ritchies were visiting the zoo, dismantling remote-control cars and collecting buckets of rocks on the way home from school. They’d spend entire afternoons at a model train shop. Once, they took the boys to watch the demolition of an old generating station. “We just loved it,” says 73-year-old Shirley, the loquacious half. “A lot of people retire, and their world sort of falls apart. This gives you a reason to get up in the mor­ning and get organized. It keeps you young at heart.”

Now that the boys are older, the Ritchies’ load is lighter: shuttling them to hockey practice and sailing camp, picking them up after school and accompanying them on field trips. Last year, the couple took a break and sailed away on a European cruise for their 50th anniversary. (They pined for the grandkids.)
 As for the Ritchies’ daughter-in-law, she knows just how lucky she is. “They are incredible,” says Jacquie. “They’ve raised the bar for what grandparents do for their grandkids.”

In many cultures, the Ritchies’ arrangement is the norm. Immigrants to Canada-who now account for one-fifth of the population-are twice as likely to live in multi-generational homes as their Canadian-born counterparts, according to a 2013 report by the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, and they are far more likely to provide care to grandchildren. Vancouver graphic designer Adam Vandyck found that out when he married Felicia, an accountant whose parents emigrated from China four decades ago; it was always assumed the couple, both in their early 60s, would act as full-time caregivers to her children. “That was one of the major factors in having kids-it would be easier for us,” says Adam. Daycare for a two-year-old in Vancouver costs an average of $14,000 a year and can go much higher. Those savings allowed him and his wife to buy a home in the most expensive market in the country.

Each morning, he drops off his two boys-ages four and one-at Po Po and Gong Gong’s toy-filled house. “It’s unreal,” says Adam reverentially. “Felicia’s parents ask nothing of us, except to be around the kids.” The Vandycks’ four-year-old already speaks English and Cantonese fluently, and their youngest jumbles both. Felicia has broached buying a duplex so they can all live together. Many kids-in-law would cringe at that thought. Not Adam. To him, it’s a fair trade for all the support he and his wife have received over the years. As for his own parents, Adam grumbles that they live just down the street but so far haven’t demonstrated much interest in their grandsons.
Of course, there are downsides to handing your brood over to someone else, even family. Recently, Adam became concerned that his eldest son was taking advantage of his Po Po, who does the bulk of child minding, since her husband still works full-time. Shopping trips were turning dictatorial-and the power wasn’t flowing from the direction one might expect. When the little boy demanded a toy, the discipline-averse grandmother would concede. Adam’s attempts to intervene resulted in his mother-in-law bursting into tears and locking herself in the bathroom. He’s learned to be less blunt. 

Another potential minefield: compensation. Do you pay your parents a weekly stipend? Cover the cost of an annual trip? Commit to giving them a place to live when they can no long­er manage on their own? “As soon as there’s an exchange of money, it can change the relationship,” says parenting expert Alyson Schafer, the author of three bestselling how-to books. Most people expect paid caregivers to follow a set of rules. “But a grandmother might say, ‘I just want to spoil them,'” she continues. “That might be fine for a weekend, but if it’s every day after school and they’re saying yes to unlimited TV, that’s different.”

 The bottom line: when parents and their children are sharing the job of raising the next generation, disagreements are inevitable. 

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When Carolynne Canham’s son and his wife went through a difficult split, she and her husband, Bob, offered to watch the children-then ages five, seven and 10-for the summer. Their home near Queenston, Ont., was a safe, secure environment, and even though Carolynne, a teacher, was still working at the time, they were confident in their ability to weather this unexpected development.

So began seven summers of mayhem, and a sobering lesson in the pitfalls of blurry boundaries. A full house was a big change, after having space and time to themselves during so many years. And the kids needed a lot of care. The Canhams enrolled them in theatre, rowing and other programs-on their own dime. “It was just too tiring for us to not do that,” says Carolynne. Still, “it was long, very long. The kids would go home on weekends, and not a minute too soon. By the end of the summer, we were semi-hysterical.”
That’s not to say they didn’t enjoy having the rambunctious trio around. It came, however, at a physical and social cost. As their friends planned extended road trips together, the Canhams braced for an onslaught of laundry and Cheerios-covered kitchen floors. Summers got easier as their grandchildren got older, but Carolynne (who still helps her son out financially, too) was resentful at times. “Your kids can easily start to take advantage. Ours didn’t realize how taxing it was, how worn out we were.”
That’s why Schafer counsels grandparents to enter into this kind of arrangement with extreme caution and to be clear about what they are willing and unwilling to do. “You don’t have to write out a contract, but be specific,” she says. If you can only do three days a week, no later than 9 p.m., tell your kids that. And schedule a meeting a month or two down the road to address any concerns. “Set really clear expectations, so there are no misunderstandings,” says Schafer.

Carolynne, now 70, wishes she’d heeded that advice years ago. And yet, all the craziness-even the seething frustration-was worth it. She and Bob celebrated 50 years of marriage this past July. At the party, all three of their son’s kids took turns at the microphone to say how much they love and appreciate their grandparents. “Being a grandparent is not at all like being a parent,” says Carolynne. “Being a parent was all right, but it was demanding-you’re tired, you’re working, you just do it. With grandchildren, you love them differently. I hesitate to say more, but I think you almost do love them more. It’s a strange thing.”