Tread carefully round the grandparent trap
The Tories promise to give grandparents rights. They should include the right to say no, says Jemima Lewis.
By Jemima Lewis
Published: 5:59PM GMT 31 Oct 2009
Heirs and graces: the child care provided by grandparents is said to be worth £3.5bn a year Photo: ALAMY
The papers this week have been full of pictures of old codgers in custard-yellow jumpers planting kisses on pigtailed girls (or, as here, their kindly female counterparts). Grandparents, you see, are in the news. The Tories have announced plans to rectify the "scandalous" situation whereby the state gives "little or no" recognition to their importance in family life.
Under a Tory government, grandparents would be given automatic access rights to ensure that they could not be forcibly estranged from their grandchildren after a family breakdown. Councils would be obliged to put grandparents at the front of the queue for custody if problems at home meant that a child faced being fostered out or taken into care.
These unhappy situations, however, represent the most extreme perils of modern grandparenting, rather than the most common. For many of the Baby Boomer generation, the problem is not that they are denied access to their grandchildren, but that they are expected to provide limitless unpaid childcare (worth around £3.5 billion at the last count), and to do so in a spirit of unflagging delight.
What if – like all four of my son's grandparents – they still have jobs of their own? What if they are tired of raising children, and keen to take up, say, hang-gliding instead? It is taken for granted that, once a person hits 60, he or she automatically sprouts pockets full of Werther's Originals and a sentimental longing for a genetic offshoot to feed them to. This, I can tell you, is not always the case. During my long years of childless spinsterhood, my parents never once expressed any impatience at my failure to reproduce. Unlike my friends' mothers, whose baby-hunger sometimes far exceeded their own, my mother insisted she had no atavistic desire to hold a tiny Lewis in her arms.
She would be a useless grandmother, she said: she had always been terrified of babies, and they of her. Besides, her shoulder was getting too arthritic for cradling infants. She already had two daughters to love, and that was bounty enough.
At the time, I was grateful for what I assumed to be her tact. It turns out, however, that she meant every word. When my son – her first grandchild – was born, my mother came rushing over with chicken soup, rubbed my feet and commiserated over the horrors of labour. But she barely glanced into the cot containing the cause of all this commotion. As for my father, when I tried to press the new heir into his arms, he gasped and staggered back as if I had accidentally presented him with the placenta.
Later that day, I overheard a conversation that gave me hope. "He is handsome, isn't he?" cooed my mother. "Oh, wonderful-looking," my father concurred. "And so charismatic." It turned out they were talking about my cat.
For some months after this, my parents were – to their bafflement – bombarded by felicitations from well-meaning friends. "But I didn't do anything! It's not my baby," my mother protested, after a woman she vaguely knew accosted her in the supermarket.
However, there were other friends – many of them – who confessed to my parents that they, too, seemed to lack the requisite syrupy feelings on the subject of grandchildren. They liked the little critters well enough – loved them, even – but dreaded being expected to look after them. "It's a nightmare," confided one busy, working grandparent. "My daughter deposits the children on me like she's doing me a favour. She actually said to me: 'It'll be good for you to have something in your life.' The cheek of it."
Two years on, my parents have managed to dodge the babysitting bullet with a nimbleness that belies their years. Nevertheless, almost against their will, they have turned into wonderful grand-parents. My father communicates with my son solely by blowing raspberries – an arrangement that entertains them both equally – while my mother has become his soft-hearted conspirator, forever springing him from the naughty step and sneaking off with him to watch Tom and Jerry.
And I have learnt an important thing about grandparents' rights: they include the right to say no