Should we as grandparents assume the responsibilities of parents? Our son and his wife both work and have extremely busy lives - probably too busy. My husband and I frequently find ourselves taking care of our grandchildren so that their mom and dad can keep up with the demands of a hectic schedule. We love being with the kids and don't mind helping them in this way. But sometimes I'm plagued by nagging doubts. Do you think this is a good arrangement?
You obviously love your grandkids and don't mind stepping up to the plate as needed. At the same time, it's hard not to detect a hint of resentment when you suggest that their parents' lifestyle may be " too busy."
There's nothing wrong with intergenerational cooperation. It's a good thing for family members to help one another as needs arise. As far as it goes, that part of your arrangement is wonderful. But we suspect you wouldn't have raised the question at all unless you had reasons for feeling uncomfortable with your situation. We'd like to know what those reasons are.
A great deal depends on the attitudes and expectations of your son and his wife. If you're feeling unappreciated, put upon, or taken advantage of - even a little bit - then it's safe to say that something needs to change. Precisely because they are your peers, you have to relate to your adult children just as you would relate to any other adult. And no one in adult society likes it when assumptions are made or when friends and equals fail to treat friends and equals with respect.
Another way of saying this is that it's all about relationships. If you want your interactions with your son, his spouse, and your grandchildren to remain happy and healthy, you need to learn how to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries. You've got to be forthright about protecting your time, your privacy, and your health. You need to know when it's time to say "enough is enough." Generally speaking, arrangements like yours are best when the participants agree on some specific limitations. For example, you can say, "We'll keep the kids two afternoons a week and no more," or "We can provide childcare until your graduate coursework is finished in December." If things remain vague and open-ended, it's only a matter of time until you'll begin to resent it.
If you find it difficult to set firm boundaries, it's likely that you're operating on the basis of 1) a guilty sense of obligation, or 2) your own co-dependent needs. Neither is conducive to healthy relationships. Neither should be allowed to go unaddressed. We should also mention that while grandparents have an important role to play in the lives of their grandkids, they are not, under normal circumstances, supposed to take on the role of primary caregivers. That's the parents' job. If you honestly feel that Mom and Dad are missing out on opportunities to strengthen their connection with their own children, it's up to you to say so. The last thing you want is to interfere with the internal balance of your son's family unit.
If you'd like to discuss these ideas at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to call Focus on the Family's Counseling department. They'd be happy to assist you in any way they can. In the meantime, you may find it helpful to take a look at Allison Bottke's excellent book Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children. This resource is available through our ministry and can be ordered from Focus on the Family's Online Store.