“What I wish I’d known about becoming an empty nester”
Every Friday morning was the same: a two-hour trip into London from my home in the Oxfordshire countryside to return my granddaughter Mae back to her parents. After looking after her for four days and three nights with my husband Chris, I’d set off on the 10.13am train – after the rush-hour chaos – before finally completing the handover
I loved our time with gorgeous Mae, now 10, but I was always exhausted by the end of her stay. I only got three days off, which felt like my recovery time, before travelling back into London and picking her up on Tuesday to do it all over again.
My husband Chris, then 70, and I, then 63, first decided to step in and help with childcare when Anna and her husband Matt returned to London from living in Amsterdam when Mae was 18 months old. Although Anna found a good local nursery, she was offered only a day and a half per week of care, which was not enough to cover their working week. Anna worked in copywriting and Matt was a journalist – this was pre-pandemic so they both worked in offices in London.
Deciding to help them wasn’t a tough decision. I love being a grandmother and I was planning retirement from my job as a part-time administrator anyway, so it felt right. It was fortunate that Chris and I were both in a position to help together – he was self-employed and working two or three days a week. We had time, good health and a lovely home and garden – it made sense.
And much of the time, it was a total joy. Chris and I made a good team; he helped with nappy changes and bedtime stories, and insisted I still attend my local Pilates class or nip out to meet friends for lunch or a drink, so that I wasn’t completely missing out on my newly retired social life.
We repeated the things we’d done with our own two daughters – trips to the zoo and visits to the park. The one thing grandparents can often give is time and one-to-one attention, and we both loved watching Mae thrive. But those cherished moments sometimes felt bittersweet, as I know Anna often felt sad that she wasn’t getting to relive some of her favourite childhood moments with Mae. It’s tricky for any parent who feels they’re missing out.
After several months, however, I started to find the run of continuous day and night care exhausting. I’m not a good sleeper with children around as I’m always on high alert, so I was finding it very tiring. I told Matt and Anna that I could no longer cope, and they were understanding. Together, we agreed to cut down to three days.
Some friends thought we were mad to offer round-the-clock “granny daycare”, but it was our choice. There could be the occasional bit of friction – Anna and Matt are stricter about treats, and there was an incident with a Mars bar that they weren’t happy about, but they told me so and we moved on. We were always very honest and open with one another, and I think that has to be the golden rule of looking after grandchildren.
The arrangement continued happily until, after a full year of looking after Mae, Anna and Matt decided to move further east so they could buy a house. We were happy for them, of course, but when they told us, my heart sank. I just couldn’t face the thought of the extra commute. It would mean negotiating the tube with a toddler and I didn’t trust myself. I was scared that I might fall while struggling to get Mae and the buggy up and down stairs.
We were always very honest and open with one another, and I think that has to be the golden rule of looking after grandchildren.
The other issue was that our bond with Mae was so strong that she would sometimes cry out for me in the night, even when she was at home with her parents. It was heartbreaking for Anna and I could see the impact it was having on her. I couldn’t let that happen to a mother, let alone my own daughter. So, I decided to broach the subject.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “But I don’t think we should carry on.” Right away I could see that Anna wasn’t happy about it, because it presented them with a problem, but, equally, she understood.
We’d never set out for the arrangement to work forever, and I didn’t feel guilty because we had already helped so much. It was a case of being honest, and I’d urge any grandparent to be as honest as possible about the strain that can come with looking after small children. Circumstances change, and what suited you once might easily change – there should be no guilt in saying that.
My stepping back from childcare meant that Anna became acutely aware of how inflexible some employers can be, and she ended up leaving her job. In 2015, she started positing about it on her @motherpukka Instagram account, which then turned into her Flex Appeal campaign. Her aim is to mobilise workplaces to offer flexible opportunities for everyone, and she wants people to recognise the other ways in which being a working parent is tough in today’s world.
I’m right behind her. The experience made me realise how much pressure families are under. The UK has the most expensive childcare system in the developed world, according to recent data. I was a stay-at-home mum, who worked like mad running the house and family, so I knew that Anna and Matt would need help in order to continue with their careers. But with a full-time nursery place costing 65 per cent of an average parent’s weekly take-home pay, it means for some, it’s almost not worth working.
Fortunately, we could step in for a while, but what about the families where grandparents can’t plug the gaps? I’d like to see the Government do more for those who are struggling and don’t have grandparents to fall back on.
And while I have a lot of compassion for working parents today, I also have sympathy for us grandparents. Almost two thirds of all grandparents regularly look after their grandchildren, saving working parents approximately £6.8 billion nationally in childcare costs.
I call us a “silent army” because we’re not paid, and we just get on with it, without complaint. Yet despite our contribution to the economy, we “silver saviours” are barely recognised by the Government. I never wanted to be paid, but some might need it.
There is a scheme that means grandparents aged 66 and under can get National Insurance credits if they’re caring for children aged under 12 – but not many people know about it. And it shouldn’t be assumed that, just because we have more free time, grandparents can be leaned upon. We’ve worked all our lives and we’re entitled to our freedom and fun.
How to make granny daycare work – for everyone
Lucia has the following advice if you’re thinking of becoming a regular carer for your grandchild:
I don’t for a moment regret stepping in to help look after Mae, because providing weekly childcare meant we formed a very strong bond. There were so many moments of pure joy, and I’ll never forget her running to me, her arms stretched wide – the love was genuine.
It was different with Mae’s younger sister, Eve, because the pandemic affected how much we could see her, but we’re trying to make up for lost time with holidays and special days out.
The reality is that now Mae is 10, she has her own busy life, so it can be a struggle to see her and Eve often enough. But that makes me even more grateful for the time we had during the early years. We’re still very close but now it’s less about responsibility and more about the sweetie jar. I’m happy to be in control of my week again, and I certainly don’t miss scrambling for those trains.
Why setting boundaries makes sense
Psychotherapist and podcaster Anna Mathur, author of upcoming book Raising A Happier Mother suggests formalising “granny daycare” arrangements as much as possible: “Anything you can do that will help stop resentment creeping in is a good idea.” She suggests the following: