When Granny is nanny: making shared childcare work

Rosa Feddersen and her husband bought their dream retirement home on a lake in Oklahoma City five years ago. He, a pilot for U.S. Airways, was nearing the end of his career, and the area had everything the couple wanted.

But when they learned their first grandchild was on the way in 2009, their agenda changed.

After pleas from their daughter, they moved back to Pennsylvania to help with the baby. Their daughter and son-in-law are both surgeons, and Feddersen sometimes watches her granddaughter, Nora, 70 hours a week. While it’s a lot of work, she says the arrangement seems to be working for everyone.

One reason: When it comes to taking care of baby, parents and grandparents try to stay out of each other’s way.

“When I’m watching her, they pretty much understand that what I say goes,” Feddersen says. “But when they’re home, I totally back off.”

That kind of mutual trust is essential to a successful childcare arrangement with grandparents, says Lawrence Balter, a child psychologist and parenting expert who is also a professor emeritus at New York University.

Sharing childrearing duties is almost never simple.

“Both generations are going to have their ideal way of doing things,” he says. “You have to be able to navigate and find a happy medium.”

More and more families are finding themselves in these murky waters. According to the most recent Census data, 30 percent of pre-school children with employed mothers are cared for by a grandparent, while 21 percent attend a daycare center. And the economic woes of the past few years have led parents to seek more help from relatives, says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a non-profit based in Washington D.C.

In addition to being a money-saving option ? the average cost of center-based daycare is approaching $12,000 a year ? letting grandparents take care of the kids has other benefits, Butts says. Children learn about their family history and are cared for by adults who love them, while parents can have more flexible schedules. As for the grandparents, a 2007 study by Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, found that grandmothers who babysit 200 to 500 hours per year exercise more and get depressed less often.

But these arrangements can also be tricky because there isn’t the same clearly defined code of conduct that would apply with a professional daycare provider. Balter shares these tips for ensuring that everyone remains healthy and happy.

Set clear expectations. Determine how many hours each week the grandparent will care for the child, during what times and at whose house, and do your best to stick to the plan. Also, if there’s compensation involved, decide on the amount in advance. Is the grandparent expected to do any chores during the day? Make sure everyone agrees.

Establish routines. Work together to create a rough schedule for the children’s day, including naptimes and meals. This is a good opportunity for mom or dad to fold in more detailed requests — for instance, if there are certain foods they do or do not want the child to eat.

Don’t be critical. Remember you’re on the same team. Instead of a parent saying, “My daughter doesn’t go to bed because you’re getting her overexcited after dinner,” try phrasing it without accusation: “Let’s run through the schedule and see what we can do so she’ll be calmer at night.” This advice applies to grandparents, too. If you notice the parents doing something ineffective, instead of correcting them, try offering gentle suggestions, such as, “When you were a kid, we did it this way and it seemed to work.”

Don’t obsess over consistency. While it’s important for an individual caregiver to be consistent, it’s fine if mom and grandma don’t have exactly the same rules. Kids learn that different things are expected of them in different contexts. (Even with mom and dad, they’ve already figured out what they can get away with when each parent is in charge.) Learning how to behave in diverse environments will help them when they start school.

Relinquish some control. This goes for both parents and grandparents. As a grandparent, it’s natural to feel defensive when your own offspring second-guess your childrearing skills. Just remember that scientific research is always evolving and today’s parents have access to knowledge you might not have had. That said, for many parents, it’s tempting to micromanage, but don’t expect grandparents to report everything that happens during the day. Trust that as long as kids are loved and kept safe, they will be OK.

Schedule regular check-ins. Plan to sit down once every few months to discuss how things are going. In the chaos of drop-off and pick-up, there won’t be much time to compare notes or share concerns. During these check-in sessions, be honest about what’s working for you and make any necessary adjustments.

For Feddersen, when the hours spent babysitting got to be too much, the family decided to send the toddler to a daycare center a couple of days a week. Now grandma has some free time to sleep in and get her nails done, and granddaughter is learning valuable socialization skills.

Feddersen has declared that her nanny stint will be up when her daughter’s fellowship ends. But she says she wouldn’t trade the time she’s spent with Nora.

“We took a three-year detour to help out, but I really think it’s given her a good start in life,” she says.