Stay-at-home grandparents

My Indian neighbors had a good life: Both were top executives at major corporations who frequently travelled to Europe, lived in an awesome house, AND had a wonderful child. Their secret? “Stay-at-home” grandparents.

Like many other Indian couples in the area, their parents had pushed them to achieve educational and career success. As they grew older, their parents helped them achieve these goals by caring for their children some days a week* so that both could continue to work. The relationship appeared to help everyone: The grandparents enjoyed being with family as they hit retirement; their children provided for them as they got older; grandchildren grew up  with extended family.  The parents did not abdicate their parenting: They set the house rules, managed homework, hired others to clean the house, etc..*

What my neighbors had seems ideal. Although my parents do not live nearby, I have pitched the idea of flying out my mother for some of the week to watch our children when they eventually come: It would allow me to work, cost no more than childcare, and ensure my children grow up with grandparents.  My expectation would be that she could do fun things with them.  Obviously, I wouldn’t be expecting her to do the cooking and cleaning.*

Because this arrangement seems like an optimal solution to issues ranging from working mothers to the break down of the extended family, I’ve been asking myself why Mormons do not adopt it more frequently. Perhaps the biggest barrier is family size.

Whereas grandparents that have only one or two children (as is generally the case in the Asian families I’ve seen adopt this model*) can provide long-term support for those children and their grandchildren, those that have more children simply cannot be physically present for all of them as they hit adulthood. Even in the rare family where adult children live in the same area as their parents, no one can consistently watch five sets of grandchildren. Moreover, if grandparents focus more of their time and financial resources on some of their children’s families than others, tension can ensue if one child feels unevenly treated. The biggest barrier to my idea of flying out my parents would likely be if my siblings wanted the same arrangement. Since we don’t live in the same area, we can’t all have it.

There is no right answer to parenting choices. But perhaps it is worth considering whether by having large nuclear families Mormons sacrifice having stronger long-term relationships between grandparents, children, and grandchildren.

*I have edited these sentences slightly in order to combat the misconception I generated that the grandparents were living in the house, that the parents were not the primary raisers of their grandchildren, or that I’d expect my mother to serve as my maid.


  1. I don’t think family size is as much a factor as the fact that grandparents really want to have their own lives, serve missions, volunteer, etc…

  2. Natalie B. says:

    That’s a good point about serving missions. We’ve sort of designated post-retirement as a time for church service.

    After we left home, my parents really wanted to have their own life for a while. But I can see the pendulum swinging back and them wanting to be around family more now. I think they burned out of that phase. They want to travel, etc., but not in ways that are incompatible with being around family.

  3. The biggest factor for me is that my wife and I want to raise our kids somewhere between the extremes my parents and her parents offer. They won’t accept our methods of raising our children when we visit for a day or two–there’s no way they’d accept it for longer time periods.

    I’d like to raise my children in a home that’s relaxed enough so that they won’t automatically rebel against everything they’re taught, and strict enough that they won’t become spoiled brats. Grandparents as permanent babysitters, then, is out.

  4. Natalie B. says:

    #1: The more I’ve been thinking about your comment, the more I’ve been thinking that you are right. Many Americans really have begun to think of retirement as a period that is separated from family and instead about freedom, leisure, new opportunities. (On the other hand, I still see very strong extended family relationships in many immigrant cultures, even where the grandparents are financially well off.) I’d be curious to see more discussion of a) how we’ve developed this model of retirement, b) if we think that this is a good thing, and c) if people actually act in accordance with that model during retirement.

    #3: Yeah, I’d have to worry about my kids being spoiled.

  5. Julie M. Smith says:

    I saw this when we lived on campus: many Chinese grad students with a grandparent or two living with them and providing childcare (and cooking, and cleaning). All of these elderly Chinese would assemble with their second-hand strollers every morning at 9:30 for a brisk walk and then the kids would play on the playground. (We called it the Ancient Chinese Playgroup.) I was most jealous.

  6. There are pockets of American that do something similar. Generations of unwed mothers whose mothers raise the grandchildren.
    I like having my parents nearby to help part of the year. It is great for my children to get to know them. However, the difficulties I have seen are:
    1. Grandparents are older with more health problems. Hearing goes. They have bad backs, knees, hips, etc. It is hard to ask an old person to deal with heavy babies, carry them, lift car seats in and out of the car, wrestle toddlers during a diaper change, chase toddlers in public places, lift toddlers in and out of the bath, on and off a toilet. Parenting is VERY physical until a child is 3 1/2.
    2. Grandparents have their own ideas. MOST people I know have issues with their parents or their parents-in-law’s language, political views, views of safety, how they praise or criticize your child, views on discipline, etc. Deciding to put your child under that influence for 50 hours a week is something I as a SAHM cringe at.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I think part of the reason we don’t see this more is cultural. It’s not something I would perceive as ideal either as a child or as a parent.

  8. At least some of this is a result of the age when a culture typically becomes parents. And the consequence is the thing noted in #6. If you have couples having kids in their early twenties. And those kids have children in their early twenties. Grandpa/ma is only in their fifties and has the strength/stamina to handle these kinds of duties.

    If the grandparents, waited until their mid-thirties to have their kids and/or those kids waiting until the mid-thirties as well? Now the grandparents are in their seventies and health is catching up.

  9. I remember thinking about the free childcare by grandparents issue when I first had a baby. (It was not an option for us). I made the decision to stop working as soon as my husband started working full-time. It was a big decision, of course.
    I felt like it was insulting to expect my mother to take care of my children because she would have nothing better to do, but I couldn’t care for my baby because I did have something better to do.
    I could, in theory, become a grandparent very soon. What if I have to decide whether to re-enter the workforce when my youngest is in school all day or stay home to care for grandchildren?
    I’m sure I’ll love babysitting my grandchildren, but I don’t think I want to raise them. And I don’t think I want to rob my children of the responsibility of raising their own children.
    I do know one grandmother who wanted to raise her children. She was eager to have a “re-do” since her own children were kind of messed up.

  10. “At least some of this is a result of the age when a culture typically becomes parents. And the consequence is the thing noted in #6. If you have couples having kids in their early twenties. And those kids have children in their early twenties. Grandpa/ma is only in their fifties and has the strength/stamina to handle these kinds of duties”

    Also, most adults in their late 40s or 50s are still working full time themselves and would not have the freedom to pick up and move and/or care for children full time.

  11. I guess I see this from the grandparent’s POV. They’ve raised their families already. While most like to be around their grandkids a lot, the joy of greeting them in the morning is almost matched by the joy of sending them home again at night. The idea of one’s grown children expecting you to furnish round-the-clock child care every day of the year, probably with the expectation of cooking and cleaning and laundry as well, is expecting waaaaaay too much.

    I know a lot of grandparents do it out of necessity — my own parents raised a pair of grandchildren for a number of years — but I don’t think the generation in the middle has any right to ask it of them. (I’m reacting here to “I have pitched the idea of flying out my mother during the week to watch our children when they eventually come” as if your mother were a piece of rental equipment without a home and friends and life of her own. Not that you meant it that way, but that’s how it struck me.)

  12. Natalie B. says:

    I have to admit that I’m surprised by the negative reactions to this idea, which leads me to agree that a lot of our bias must be cultural.

    I might be exceptional in that I think my parents would do a good job and they are healthy and have time, but assuming those factors are in place, I don’t see any rational reason to find it insulting or over-stepping boundaries to have grandparents around to help out. If we really think it is insulting to our parents to ask if they’d like to be involved in our children’s lives (especially when we aren’t asking them to contribute anything financially), then we must not value family much after all.

    Sure, it’s not for everyone. But when I pitched this idea to my mother, she thought it was exciting. Currently, my mother-in-law spends several days a week with her grandchildren by her own choice, and I know she loves it. She still has plenty of time to do other things: Recently, she has run a political campaign and written a book. My brother and sister-in-law have by no means abandoned their parenting responsibilities, but everyone seems to benefit–grandma WANTS time with the kids, it allows my sister-in-law to get out of the house. It’s win-win. If I do not do something like fly my parents up to visit us, my kids will never know their grandparents in any meaningful way. As someone who grew up without any extended family nearby, neither my parents nor I want that. We feel something was missing.

    So I what I find most interesting about this thread is why we are bothered by this idea when other cultures deploy it so successfully.

  13. Natalie B. says:

    One misconception throughout this thread seems to be that children in this arrangements are just seeking something free from their parents. In the situations where I’ve seen this model successfully deployed, the children pay for their parents costs and do not treat them like servants.

    Perhaps the flip side of having a culture that sees grandparents as no longer involved in their children’s lives is that children have also stopped looking out for their parents.

  14. Marjorie Conder says:

    So I’m the grandma and most of our grandchildren live withing 15 miles of us. We have been very involved in their lives and try to make it to every event possible that any of them are involved in and we frequently see them in our home and theirs. However, I would take a dim view of an expectation that we should “raise” any of them. I can think of several women in my circle who did get caught up in raising grandkids and in each case I think they were taken advantage of. One of these friends told me they specifically went on a mission as a circuit breaker from the expectations of their children. Would this tending arrangement work in some cases? Sure. But not with the kind of “expectations” I see here.

  15. Stephanie says:

    Yes, family size is likely a large barrier. After 30+ years raising my five kids, the last thing I am going to want to do is spend all day taking care of my grandkids. No thanks. I love my children, am sure I will love my grandchildren, but I have other things I want to do with my life. After my mom spent 31 years raising her six kids, I would hardly feel it appropriate to ask her to watch my kids. She has other things she wants to do, too.

    We live 24+ hours away from both sets of grandparents because we all live where we could find jobs. So, we see them maybe 1-2 times per year.

    But, my husband has a great career he loves, I feel good about putting my career on hold to stay at home with my kids, we live in an average house in an average neighborhood AND we have five wonderful kids. I would say our lives our pretty ideal. Trading any of my children for more grandparent time would be a lousy trade, IMO.

  16. To me it would feel like a huge imposition on my parents (even if they weren’t currently serving a mission). They raised me, and while they are always willing to tend when they live nearby I try not to take advantage of that. I think that it would depend on the family–in my family, expecting my parents to live in and care for our children, or even to care for them on a regularly scheduled basis, would be a huge and pretty presumptuous imposition on their lives.

  17. Katie B. says:

    I think it sounds ideal for you or I, as a working mother. Less so for our own mothers, who have raised their kids and now have the freedom to do what they please, perhaps much as you or I would like to do with career and family. I have talked to mother in law about this a bit–she lives in Utah county, and she said lots of her friends are excited to go on missions in part to stop being free/inexpensive child care for their own kids.

  18. By “try not to take advantage of that” I mean overschedule them tending my kids–I do ask them to tend, but in a way that I hope is respectful of their schedule and their other obligations.

    If I were widowed or divorced or my husband were disabled, I would definitely ask for more help, though.

  19. Katie B. says:

    I hadn’t read through all of the comments. I’m bothered by the “we must not value family as much as I thought sentiment.” Valuing close generational bonds is not synonymous with live in grandparents.

    I think it is a lot to ask anyone (a parent, a grandparent, a best friend) to provide full time child care to pre-k kids. If my mom had worked full time when I was little, I would be asking her to quit at the height of her career. If she didn’t work, I would be asking her to quit a few years after re-entering the work force. Either way, I think it is a lot to ask. Too much, in my case. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to do the same at 50, or 55, or 60.

  20. Natalie B. says:

    Thank you for all that have contributed to this point. You have given us all much to think about.

    Given that this post is generating far more controversy than I anticipated and that I’m ill at the moment so don’t have energy to moderate this amount comments, I am closing the post to additional comments. Please feel free to explore the issues raised here elsewhere.