Who's Holding The Baby Now?

5th March 2010

According to the charity Grandparents Plus, four out of five teenagers say that their grandparents are the most important people in their lives outside their immediate family. There’s a widely held belief, throughout society, that grandparents’ main focus is on their children and their children’s children. Increasingly, though, the older generation looks outside its immediate circle for stimulation, fulfilment and income.

Heather Harris explores a contemporary role reversal: mothers at home, and grannies at work.

Modern day Grandmas are more likely to be pushing pens than pushing prams, and searching for green shoots in their business results not in their window boxes.

The stereotyped image of the older generation sitting by the fire knitting, while their power-driven daughters thrust their way through the glass ceiling in the City has been firmly shattered. According to a recent report by the Centre for Policy Studies there have been ‘some intriguing U-turns in what today’s young females think about the conflicting demands of career and motherhood.’

The report highlights the fact that their mothers – even their grandmothers – lived through a time when women fought for full-time work. ‘But today’s generation is returning to the traditional values of home and family.’

I see it in my own social circle: friends who have given up careers in law, journalism, accountancy and recruitment for a life of maths homework, coffee mornings and Pilates.

As Charlotte Parr, a ‘retired at the age of 30’ Public Relations Director and now stay-at-home mother of three, tells me, “My own Mum, 72, can’t come and meet me for a day’s shopping as she is too busy working – running a Day Centre for the elderly.”

The irony isn’t lost on Charlotte’s own teenage offspring. “Isn’t it funny,” comes a comment from the corner of the room, “Grandma looks after old people… and she is an old person!”.

According to Geoff Dench, the sociologist responsible for a recent British Social Attitudes Survey that looked at changes over the past 30 years, “Just as young women led the movement into higher levels of paid work, it seems to be young women who are leading a return to more traditional values.”

Louise Chunn, full-time editor of Psychologies Magazine and mother of two grown-up daughters, is a classic case-study.

“My mother, now 81, engendered in me the hunger for a good career and I was more than happy to take up the baton… but my eldest daughter, having graduated from Oxford, is considering taking an interesting job that doesn’t pay much and finding a man to provide for her and her future children.”

So did our female forbearers tie themselves to the railings for nothing and burn their underwear in vain? Or is it a reality check? As Louise says, “My daughter probably watched me and my contemporaries juggling stressful jobs and bustling families and deemed it all too aggravating…”

Certainly, many of the working Grannies I spoke to are finding it easier to be in employment now than when they were younger. “I ran my own tea shop called ‘Tea At Three’ in Harrow on the Hill for 26 years until I was 60, and now work two days a week in a delicatessen, starting at 7am,” Maureen Hynes, 62, told me as she arrived back from one of her regular runs around the Chiltern countryside.

“When my own daughters were growing up they came and helped me in the tea shop and then their children came too. My only regret is that I would have liked to have had more time for my grandchildren when they were little…”

Not that her daughters actually needed help with childcare as, interestingly, they made the decision not to work. As 39 year old Michelle Trigg explained, “Unlike Mum, I chose to stay at home because working in an Advertising Agency, [and dealing with] late night pitches didn’t fit in with bringing up children. Also I wanted to take them to toddler groups and make new friends with babies.”

Ex-PR Charlotte agrees, “I made the decision to stop work when the children were younger because of the hassle of arranging childcare. I knew my own Mum couldn’t help as she was at work herself”.

Charlotte’s mother, Anne, is very aware of that. “I do feel guilty not falling into the traditional role of doting Granny, but I feel so fit and healthy at 72 that I want to keep my brain and body busy for as long as possible.”

And that’s another factor. Today’s 14 million UK Grandparents are a far healthier generation and, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, are living longer.

As Great Aunt Gwen (an 80 year old relative) remarked, on returning from a recent trip to China where she continues her TEFL work (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), “If I had retired at 62, think of all those wasted years…”

Maureen agrees. “I would feel old if I gave up work… I am always being told I have a young outlook. I believe everyone should do something at my age….”

She did admit though that she understands why her own daughters didn’t follow in her ‘crumb-covered’ footsteps. “It was different for our generation when children just played at home. It was easier for us. Today I see Michelle driving them here, there and everywhere to clubs and sports after school, and she couldn’t do that if she worked.”

Michelle is proud of her mother. “I think my Mum has the perfect balance in her job… she’s way too active to retire. My children have always known her to run her own business and they don’t see her as being old in the traditional Granny sense.” The time that Michelle spent in that tea shop as a child gave her a love of cooking today. She’s just passing it on to her children differently.

There’s also the small matter of money. Grannies are no longer prepared to sit at home with their Sudoku, relying on their pension to pay for SAGA coach trips. Today’s ‘silver travellers’ are worth a fortune; the ‘grey pound’ is hugely important for the tourism industry as the older generation treks their way around the globe with not a pair of comfy slippers or stair-lift in sight – financed by their own salaries.

“I don’t get paid much at the Day Centre but it means I can run a decent, reliable car, go on trips and not have to worry if I want to buy a new outfit,” Anne told me, in her recently acquired M&S pure wool cardigan.

Ironically, it also means that they are reluctant to give up these wages to fall into a more traditional, stereotypical Granny role – something the charity Grandparents Plus is not happy about.
In March 2009, the media was full of the organisation’s call for grandparents to be given, ‘Granny Leave’ if they work but are ‘forced’ to give up to care for their grandchildren. In the charity’s survey of 2,000 people, 55% said, “Working grandparents should have the right to request flexible hours in the same way as parents who have children aged under six”.

The stay-at-home daughters I met all laughed at the idea of paying their busy Mums to retire and become babysitters so that they could return to work.

“I don’t think my Mum would be happy not working. She enjoys meeting different people and she’s now taken up running with some of them. Being at home, like I am, would drive her mad!” admitted Michelle, on her way to watch her son play football.

And the thought positively horrified Charlotte. “I can’t imagine my Mum being satisfied becoming my paid nanny – and anyway, I am very happy staying at home!”

Perhaps we should be grateful that what that mass bra-burning gave us was choice: the choice to stay at home at 30 and go to work at 70 or vice versa. The choice to have our cake and eat it, or stay at home and bake one instead.

As Louise Chunn neatly puts it: “My generation’s daughters perhaps have the liberty to cherry-pick the best bits from their Grandmothers’ and Mother’s lifestyles.”

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