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Grandparents are often happy to spend time with their grandchildren, but may need to set boundaries so families don’t come to rely on them unrealistically. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)
Grandparents are often happy to spend time with their grandchildren, but may need to set boundaries so families don’t come to rely on them unrealistically. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)

The Granny Files

Helping with grandchildren can be a blessing and a burden Add to ...

I can hear the baby crying as I open the front door of the house. From upstairs, one of the twins is yelling, “We’ve had quiet time for a very long time.” I ignore her and follow the wails. My son is sitting at the dining-room table, wearing headphones and staring into his computer screen as he rocks the baby in his arms. He shifts the infant so he can put a finger to his lips. That’s how I know he is on a conference call at work.

I go to the kitchen, make a bottle and then climb the stairs to tell the almost-four-year-olds that we are going to the park, followed by a treat at the macaroon shop. When the girls and I return two hours later, the baby is sleeping, Daddy has gone back to the office and Mommy has returned from her client presentation. All is calm, at least until the next crisis.

The veneer of family harmony cracked because the beloved nanny was given only a few hours notice to attend her Canadian citizenship ceremony. Of course, she had to be there, and of course I want to pitch in.

I remember how desperate I often was when I was raising small children in Toronto 30 years ago. I had no grandparents around back then. My widowed father lived in Montreal and my elderly in-laws were in Victoria, almost half a continent away. I vowed I would be super-granny when my son and daughter needed help with their kids, but I am the first to admit that I can’t always rise to the challenge.

Thanks to the baby boom and increased life expectancy, Statistics Canada reports that there are more than seven million grandparents in the country today, a segment that is growing at a significantly faster rate than the general population. That is the new reality for the forever-young generation, a cohort that swallowed the warning that we shouldn’t trust anybody over 30. Many of us are trying to figure out how much help, how often, we should provide to the offspring we never imagined having.

Little kids are both exhilarating and exhausting. As a grandparent, I know I am one of the lucky ones in that my children are self-supporting and live close by. I can see them as often as I wish, but I can also retreat to my own house and my adult life. Many of my friends are feast-or-famine grannies, trying to connect on social media with grandkids on the other side of the country or the world. Instead of drop-ins and casual visits, they have the pressure-cooker intensity of family visits in which three generations crash under the same roof, disrupting their sleep and their sanity and costing them a fortune in food bills.

We fought hard for work-life balance. Should we abandon those goals when our kids need help with their children? How do we set boundaries about the value of our time, other than bartering babysitting for reprogramming our phones and our televisions?

If I travel across the country to provide daycare for my grandchildren during a school holiday, one disgruntled granny asked me, should I have to pay my own plane fare? These are the dilemmas my friends and I try to unfurl over glasses of chilled white wine.

They pale with the realities some grandparents face, as the Vanier Institute of the Family pointed out in September in A Snapshot of Grandparents in Canada.

Using census figures, the report showed that 600,000 grandparents lived in the same dwelling as their grandchildren in 2011, a figure that represents a 23-per-cent increase in a decade. More than half of them reported having some financial responsibility for the family, a figure that rose to 70 per cent in multigenerational families headed by a single parent, and to 80 per cent in skip-generational ones, in which both parents were absent.

When I read statistics like that, I am ashamed to be whining about what can only be dismissed as pampered First World problems. For years, I have admired the work that the Stephen Lewis Foundation is doing with its Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, pairing grandparents in Canada with their counterparts in Africa, many of whom are raising a generation of children orphaned in the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Why can’t we modify that model of one granny helping another and apply it here, I wonder?

The issues may be different, but the need is just as pressing.

The Granny Files is a new series about grandparents who are confronting real problems in what we often call the golden years. Maybe together we can find some homegrown solutions. Write to me at smartin@globeandmail.com.

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