Many GaGa Sisterhood members are working grandmothers who juggle families and jobs. They’ll take comfort in reading Madonna Harrington Meyer’s book, Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Families and Jobs. So will the millions of other grandmas who are caring for grandchildren.
According to Meyer, as much as 46 percent of grandmas care for their grandchildren regularly and struggle to balance family life and careers. Meyers, a sociology professor at Syracuse University, interviewed 48 American women who balance paid employment with unpaid grandchild care. Her in-depth interviews explore the stresses and benefits that come from caring for grandchildren while employed.
In her book, Meyers addresses the issues of child care, emotional support, financial support and at times, custodial care. She explains that not much has been written about how working grandmothers balance work and care of grandchildren, or what the impact of that mix of responsibilities is on their financial, emotional, social, and physical well-being.
Reliance on working grandmothers is high in the U.S. for several reasons. The proportion of children born to single mothers has risen steadily. The rate of working mothers with young children has also risen steadily. More women are working later into middle age than ever before. These trends have converged to create a high demand for child care and a generation of grandmothers who continue to have jobs. The U.S. welfare system has not responded to these trends. The result is greater reliance on working grandmothers.
Many of the grandmothers she interviewed are sequential grandmothers, caring for one grandchild after another. Many juggle multiple roles seamlessly, but others provide care to their own detriment — exhausting themselves physically, emotionally, and financially. They soldier on, not wanting their grandchildren to suffer during hard times. When times get tough, so do grandmothers!
The book tells many stories of women so devoted to helping their adult children and grandchildren they often sacrifice their own health and lifestyle. But the central theme throughout is one of joy. Care provided by grandparents may be particularly rewarding because many grandparents feel such powerful feelings for their grandchildren and because those feelings are often exuberantly mutual. It’s one thing to love your granddaughter so much and quite another to know just how much she loves you right back as she leaps into your outstretched arms.
Regardless how difficult the circumstances or demands, the women Meyers interviewed felt tremendous happiness when spending time with or even talking about their grandchildren. For many, it provided a second chance to enjoy raising kids without so many competing pressures or concerns about shortcomings. Juggling work and grandchild care gave grandmothers a great deal of role diversity and most liked that mix of responsibilities. However, for some, it proved to be exhausting as responsibilities competed for limited resources.
Meyers concludes that the U.S. does not pass federal policies that support families because the government assumes women will continue to shoulder care work roles, performing unpaid care work despite the consequences for their financial, emotional, social and physical well-being. She also writes that we have yet to recognize it’s not just an issue for young working women, but increasingly an issue for women and men alike, single and married alike, young, middle-aged, and old alike.
If there were federally guaranteed universal health insurance, subsidized high-quality, low-cost child care, and universal access to preschool, it would help families and working grandmas enormously. The aim is not to reduce the grandmas’ time with her grandchildren. That is a source of joy for both generations. But grandma could be visiting more than babysitting and that might have fewer negative consequences for her financial, emotional, social, and physical well-being.