Babysitters can charge $5 to $25 an hour. But family members typically watch each other's offspring for free. After all, if you're a grandparent, you may feel awkward taking money from your own kids. That same idea holds true if you're an auntie, an uncle, or a great-aunt.
And of course, kids typically prefer relatives to a paid sitter. My 11-year-old daughter's friend enthusiastically talks about her grandmother running what she calls "grandma camp," which includes trips to the grocery store.
My own daughter loves when her "grandmommy" comes to visit from 700 miles away. But she isn't so sure about the "grandma camp" idea. "I bet we'd go to antique shows," she says. Would she like that? "Not particularly," she says.
Too much time with the grandkids?
If you're a babysitting grandparent (or aunt or uncle), what should you do if you'd rather spend a little less time with your grandchildren? If you feel your grown kids are taking advantage of you, bring it up. "Maybe you need to talk about hiring someone," says Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. Set boundaries, too. You can say, "I can't babysit on this kind of frequency," says Turner. And then you might offer to watch the kids once a week.
Make it clear that you sometimes want to spend time with your grandkids and your adult kids at the same time. You don't want to feel as though your offspring are just "dropping off and leaving" the children, says Turner.
What happened to retirement?
Grandpas can feel their wives' babysitting commitments are interfering with retirement plans, says Carl Hindy, a psychologist in Nashua, N.H., and author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? They may say, "How can we go to the beach house when she's babysitting on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and a half day Saturday?"
As a result, grandpas feel trapped. "He wants to get out together with his wife, to use the beach house or the motor home, or to travel as he thought the plan had always been for when he retired from his job," says Hindy. "When he tries to talk to his wife about it, she gets upset. He's doesn't want to keep bringing it up, just to upset her."
Trying to make everyone happy
Where does this leave a grandmother who is trying to please everyone? "Grandma typically feels caught in the middle," says Hindy. Her child expects her to babysit, and her husband expects her to fulfill their dream of retired life together. "Grandma doesn't want to upset her son or daughter, nor does she want to upset her husband — but she ends up feeling like she's upsetting both of them," says Hindy. "Feelings then might ratchet-up on both sides, never seeing the light of calm and open discussion."
Grandmoms may worry that their adult kids can't keep their jobs or afford their houses without their free labor. And they may say to their husbands, "You know the cost of daycare. Don't you care about them?" says Hindy. Grandpa may reply, "Of course I care about them. But they're using you. They're taking advantage of you. They act like they're entitled to babysitting."
Grandparents may even wind up arguing about earlier times, when grandma felt her husband was always working instead of helping her raise the kids, he says. "Grandpa, in turn, may feel that grandma has been sheltering the children too long, being too over protective. 'It's not your problem. They need to figure it our for themselves!'"
The babysitting dilemma can cause friction in two marriages — that of the grandparents and that of the adult kids. "It can be a complicated square dance of marital dynamics," says Hindy. "Grandma now might be afraid that the whole thing could explode and she won't get to see the grandchildren even as often as she would wish. She may be afraid they'll be upset and limit her contact with their grandchild. Grandpa, upset, says, 'Then so be it!' And grandma replies, "How can you say that?!"
Sometimes grandparents worry about causing trouble for their adult kids, says Hindy. Grandma may say, "We don't want to cause trouble in their marriage." And grandpa may say, "They're manipulating you."
The result can be a rift between two generations of husbands and wives. "Setting the limits surely seems easier," says Hindy. "As a marriage and family therapist, I certainly try to work with the grandparent couple to get on the same page: to acknowledge their common wishes and fears, to hold back the references to their own old marital issues and other tangential thoughts, and focus on the problem at hand. What would be our ideal arrangement for babysitting? What can we both honestly agree would be OK? Do we feel good about being able to offer this to them? How can we present this to our children together? What are the likely responses we will hear, and how will we respond to them together?"
As a united front, grandparents need to make some decisions. "Should we first meet together with our child, without his or her partner?" says Hindy. "Or should we meet together, the four of us?"
Grandmothers need to recognize that they might get too "engulfed in the babysitting role" because being a parent was the highlight of their own lives, says Hindy. "Maybe the empty nest years have been feared and avoided, or if underway are feeling emptier than expected. Here Grandma and Grandpa need to address these concerns, rather than fill the void with too much with grandparenting or, at the least, not to do it without more awareness of how their own needs are part of the story."
Hindy likes to hear young couples talk about not overburdening grandparents, along the lines of, "We don't want to burn them out. We're fortunate to have them nearby." That's the way it ought to be, he says. "Having grandparents nearby can be a great thing for everyone." Just don't abuse it. "You can feel good that you're not leaving your child with a stranger," says Hindy. "You're fostering a relationship with the grandparent."
And yet, everyone needs to remember that while grandparents (and aunts and uncles) can provide tremendous love and support, they've got their own lives, too.