Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Grandchildren: Pleasures and Burdens

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.



4684768482_fbd72d3907_zPhoto by Patrick McDonald via Flickr (Creative Commons License)


Dear Dr. Ford:

I got up this morning purposely searching for articles about how grandparents explain to their kids that they want to limit their babysitting time, so I was grateful to find this. However, it doesn’t fit my situation entirely, as I am retired at age 65 and just squeaking along financially. There are circumstances behind this that I won’t go into.

I find that watching my grandkids (who range in age from 8 yers to 7 months, from my two sons) drains my energy like nothing ever has before. I love my grandkids and like being with them. I feel that my own sons don’t understand just how exhausting it is (even though I’ve said so); and one of my sons thinks I’m being a “drama queen,” which I find very hurtful and disturbing.

When I have tried to set limits in the past, my one son has been disappointed but has treated me with respect. My other one derides me and tries to shame me. Sometimes I just do what he wants to keep the peace, which has done me no favors.

I’m not sure what to do to convince my angry son that I’m not withholding babysitting just to make his life more complicated, and I resent having to try to prove to him how it tires me out.

Do you have any wise words for me?



Dear Anonymous:

Thanks for your question.

Having grandchildren is usually considered a gift, but just as it is with children, it has its costs. Though they say the burdens are fewer than they are for parents and that grandparents can enjoy these children in a way they couldn’t when they were parents themselves, there are some new stressors that are unique to the role of grandparent, several of which are evident in your letter.

The first is you obviously are much older than you were when your children were young, and it makes a big difference. Nature clearly did not intend for women over 45 to have children and it is only recently in our evolutionary history that we have lived much past that age. Even recognizing that 60 may be the new 50, and women are in better shape than ever, there is no way a woman your age can look after several young children for an entire day, properly at least, without becoming exhausted.

I’m surprised that your sons don’t share your view that keeping up with kids is hard, since they are so eager for your help.  The pace of children’s activity, as we all know, is lightning fast, particularly in the early years, and there may be important biological underpinnings to this. A recent article in the Journal of Neuroscience reported that during the years from birth to age 4 the brain changes at an astonishing rate, particularly in the realm of language acquisition. The legendary stamina and resilience of the very young may have developed as a resource to aid this amazing brain growth. There is a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, that the legendary Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe was instructed to spend a day mimicking all the physical activity of a young child as an experiment. The story goes that he gave up, exhausted, after a few hours.

Perhaps your sons do not appreciate how much energy it takes to look after children properly, at your age. If you trying to pay the right level of attention and not just “park them,” taking care of kids is a big job. Which leads me to the second “special” issue of grandparenthood: intergenerational conflict. As a parent, you are free to make your own decisions, but when you are taking care of someone else’s children, you are expected to abide by their rules. This can be especially sticky within families, because as a caretaker you have been given responsibilities, but may not be given much of a “voice” in the decision making. But since you are the children’s grandmother, you also have cares and concerns above and beyond those of a “babysitter,” as well as opinions formed during your years of experience. Not only do generations often clash when it comes to child-rearing ideas, old issues between you and your children sometimes can get in the way. Long held resentments or disappointments left over from your own children’s childhoods can be “displaced” onto the current situation, muddying the waters.

So, for example, you write that one son claims you are being a “drama queen,” but the other son is more understanding. While there may be many reasons for his feelings, one possibility is that they relate to some issue in your past history with him. Did he see you this way when he was growing up? Did he think you were overreacting when you worried about things then? Perhaps this was an issue for him but not his brother, with whom there were different dynamics. Too often our children respond to us as the people we were in their past, rather than the people we are now. Adult children often regress when they are around their parents and replay old scenarios.

Which brings me to the third issue you mentioned in your letter. It sounds like your sons still see you as a “parent”—someone who should be there for them to count on for support. However, you are retired and just getting by, so you can no longer provide financial support. Even babysitting may be draining you of resources you need, but your sons, used to seeing you as someone who is a provider, may have difficulty adjusting to that new image of you—much the same way as they may not be able to see that you do not have “limitless” physical energy.

It is not easy for our children to change their view of us, which was formed early in childhood. There are many reasons why they want to hang on to their view of parents as omnipotent, and it can make them irrationally angry when they see us change. It sounds like this is some of what you are up against and the best advice I can offer you is to try to be as open as possible about the situation. Make it clear to your sons that you love them and their children, while at the same time laying out what kinds of help you can give most willingly and happily. It may help if you take some time to think this through before talking to them. For example, would it be easier for you if you set up a regular schedule rather than if they call you whenever they need you? If you set the terms, rather than they do, it may be easier to manage. You may find taking control of the situation, feeling like a willing participant and doing it the way you want to, will make all the difference to enjoying your grandchildren, and your children again.

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  • Carly March 9, 2018 at 9:49 pm

    I am also an exhausted grandmother. I work full time as well as looking after my grandchildren after work and baby sitting on the week ends. I often go straight from work as my daughters husband is a shift worker and often needs help with four children under six. I know that if I say I can’t do it then my own mother will go and she has often been there a few times during the week as well. She is in her 70s but is well and active but I’m sure exhausted too after being with the grandchildren and the constant toy cleaning, dinner times and bath time. How do you possible say no when you know how much they need some help when the children are this young. Some days I’m a shattered wreck with no energy left to do my own things. I said recently how I was so tired and my fighter responded with ! “ Maybe you need to have some blood tests”. Ha ha just doesn’t get it