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Adult retraining has become a family affair

"Adult retraining" was my mantra for decades. I believed that I could modify deeply seated, recalcitrant male behaviour about housework, cooking and child-rearing if I were simply patient, persistent and, if necessary, petulant. (I can picture some of you laughing.)

I believed so firmly in AR that I once gave an impromptu speech at a wedding reception praising the third bride of one of my husband's oldest friends because I thought she would succeed, where her predecessors had failed, in transforming the groom from a detached observer of domestic realism into an active participant in the daily grind of family life. Alas, it was a bilingual wedding and there was a translation problem. One of the groom's adult sons leaned in over a glass of bubbly, fluttered his spidery eyelashes, and asked me if I could tell him more about this "adultery-training" thing.

Aghast at the notion that I might have unwittingly invited him to play Benjamin to my Mrs. Robinson, I quickly explained that I was talking about making beds, not tumbling about in them – alone or otherwise. Seriously, though, a willingness to share household drudgery, especially after having children, can make or break a relationship – a situation that can get even more problematic when grandchildren are involved.

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I've read a spate of recent articles and watched heartwarming videos about retired couples who are raising grandchildren abandoned by parents who are addicts, abusers or deadbeats. Mostly the grandparents talk about the financial hardship and the loss of independence. They rarely mention the onerous shiftwork of making lunches, doing laundry, cleaning up and deciding who does what and when.

When my husband and I had small children, we alleviated our housework problem – note I didn't say solved – after a lot of turmoil. We did what most double-income families do: We hired a cleaner (a woman, not surprisingly) to impose a modicum of order and cleanliness on a weekly basis.

For a while – after the kids left home and before the grandchildren arrived – we lived like two companionable adults. The last person out of bed made it and the first person up emptied the dishwasher. My husband was still cooking-phobic, but if I didn't feel like slinging hash, we could order in, or stroll to a neighbourhood restaurant for a leisurely adult meal. This lack of clamour must be what it's like to be a childless couple, I sometimes thought to myself.

Things are different when the grandchildren show up because we revert to the old stereotypes. I want to change that pattern. "Grannies are for maintenance, granddads are for fun," is not an adage I want to wear on a T-shirt. Nor do I want my grandchildren listening to me nagging my husband to feed them, or find out why one of them is crying in the middle of the night or, heaven forfend, change diapers.

There has been a generational improvement in the way most young males parent these days, a change I applaud in my son and daughter-in-law. Here's the interesting thing: When their children come to us for a sleepover, the parents (as they are affectionately known) expect us, as grandparents, to adopt their parenting style and assume equal roles in child-care duties. They had a late night planned last weekend – a surprise birthday party followed by an after-hours music session. Would we take the three kids from late afternoon on Saturday until mid-morning the next day?

Sure, I said, knowing that either I would have to forgo my Sunday morning walk or they would have to pick up their children right after breakfast. To my surprise, and my husband's shock, our son and daughter-in-law insisted on an untested third option: Dadat, as my husband is called, could babysit for a couple of hours while I walked and they, the parents, slept.

There was some grumbling before my husband succumbed. I made sure all three children were fed, dressed and, in the toddler's case, changed, before I left the house. Guess what? Everybody survived, and that includes me, the nervous Nellie who couldn't resist a phone call to check up on everybody. Even the baby co-operated by waiting until his parents returned to poop in his diaper. Adult retraining has become a family affair. There's no going back now.

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Five top excuses some granddads use to avoid changing diapers:

1. I might stick the baby with a pin.

2. I changed enough diapers the first time around.

3. You are better at this than I am.

4. What smell?

5. We need wine for dinner. Will be back soon.

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Video: Money Monitor: Teaching kids about finance with an allowance (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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