Nicki Donley was thrilled -- and relieved -- when her father agreed to care for her girls. She'd had triplets, born prematurely, so day care was prohibitively expensive and finding a sitter proved to be a bust. "I interviewed several prospects, but it just didn't feel right," says Donley, of Twinsburg, Ohio. Having her dad come to her house two or three days a week gave Donley and her husband peace of mind. It's been seven years now, and Donley's folks (these days, her mom is the main sitter) are still the trio's twice-weekly caregivers. Donley's mom, Bonnie Peretto, 62, says keeping up with triplets "who think Grandma can do everything they can do" is physically tough, but also rewarding.
The sense of safety and trust that Donley enjoys is paramount for new moms and dads "employing" parents as babysitters. And the cost of turning a family member into Mary Poppins can't be beat. It's easy to understand why 30 percent of preschoolers whose mothers work outside the home are cared for by their grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But is it right for you?
Ask the Question
Calling on Granny to play Nanny can be a brilliant arrangement, but it can also trigger bad feelings if you don't tread carefully. First step: Don't assume your mother is jonesing to spend her days diapering, much as she adores her grandchild. "Some women think, My mom will do this because she isn't working, but she may be busy with other activities, such as volunteer work," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Under One Roof Again. That happened to Kristie Galvani, a mom of a 4-month-old son in Seaford, New York: "My mother made a deal with me when I was still in college. She said that as long as I graduated, got a job, married, and had kids, she would quit work and watch them." But when the time rolled around, Galvani's mom, Donna Koppe, found she was not ready to fully retire. However, Koppe, 56, did cut back her hours to carve out a two-day-a-week babysitting stint. Galvani's in-laws pitched in for two more. "Even two days a week with an infant can be challenging," Koppe admits. "I'm not 25 anymore!"
Like Koppe, some grandparents don't feel physically up to caring for a baby or are simply unwilling to sacrifice personal time. Others may need or want to continue working at a job that doesn't involve dirty diapers. (After all, the average age of becoming a grandparent is 48, according to a report by the American Association of Retired Persons. The average age of retirement is 62 -- so grannies and grampies have a whole lot of working life still in them!)
Lay Ground Rules
At a day care, you're expected to bring the wipes and pick up your child promptly. If you hire a sitter, you'll hash out the requirements of her job. (Child care only? Light housecleaning? Overtime pay?) But with your parents, you can skip all that; after all, you're family. Problem is, it's tempting to take advantage of a good thing. Picture this: You come home late just this once, knowing your folks will feed the baby. Meanwhile, Grandma is seething over missing her book club. And no one says anything, so it happens again and she grows resentful.
How can you avoid awkward situations like this? No need to treat your mother like an employee, but you do have to be forthright, says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, an online resource for behavior and family issues. "Hold meetings to talk about how the baby is doing and what your plans are for the upcoming week." That way, if there's an issue Grandma needs to discuss (you keep forgetting to restock the diapers) or something that's bugging you (your mom hasn't been sticking to the nap schedule), you can bring it up rather than let it fester.
Another common conundrum? Differing parenting approaches. For instance, your mother may figure, "I left you in the playpen, and you turned out just fine." Disagreement can lead to power struggles. Remember that rules involving sleep safety should be nonnegotiable. (A survey by Halo Innovations, makers of the SleepSack, found that 40 percent of parents of kids younger than 2 were concerned that babysitting grandparents were ignoring the Back to Sleep rule, designed to reduce the risk for SIDS.) If you have generational matters to sort out, establish a no-argument zone around the topics you feel most strongly about, Dr. Newman says.
But beyond that, give your parent leeway to make decisions and plan the day. "Approach the care of your child as a collaboration," Dr. Newman says, not a dictatorship. That means, unless your parents request it, don't type up a minute-by-minute schedule of what they should be doing. If Grandma wants to take the baby to the park and feed her lunch there, why not?
Put your parents on the payroll? It sounds like child-star territory, but maybe it's not such an outlandish idea. Most grandparents, Dr. Newman says, would probably reject payment, but some parents find that token remuneration helps them feel better about asking their folks to sit. Kristi Schmidt, a mom of two boys in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, relies on her dad as a full-time sitter -- and gives him $250 every two weeks. She admits that's a bargain compared with what she'd fork over for full-time day care, but she also knows that providing her dad with some extra cash makes his life a little easier
Although your parents might not accept money, you should still acknowledge the work they're doing and the sacrifices they may be making, McCready says. Consider other ways to compensate them for their generosity, such as sending them on a trip or hiring someone to clean their house.
"My parents refuse to be paid," Donley says. "But my husband will cook dinner for everyone, and I try to get my mom's car washed and fill the tank." The Donleys also tackle home-maintenance chores for the grandparents. At the very least, be sure you supply everything your munchkin needs (from diapers to a crib), particularly if your parents will be caring for your child in their home.
Don't Forget the Fun
Most grandparents who don't babysit will tell you how thrilled they are to play with, be silly with, and yes, spoil their grandchildren in ways they could not when raising their own kids. But when Granny's in charge, roles can become muddied. Schmidt has noticed that her father can struggle with being the heavy. "My dad makes the mistake of asking the kids their opinion when there is no choice, such as when to nap or what to eat for lunch. I need to remind him that he is the adult."
Babysitting can alter a relationship, Dr. Newman cautions. "When the grandparents become authority figures, it can be hard for them to remain regular grandparents." Happily, most elders find ways to still have a good time with their little charges. Neil Staedler, 69, Schmidt's father and sitter, balances the responsibilities of caring for his grandsons with fun stuff: "We go to the park. We horse around. I have to keep their schedules straight and make sure they eat, but I'm still their granddad."
There's no arguing this: Grandma and Grandpa, unlike other babysitters (no matter how fantastic), are by their very nature invested in your children. "Grandparents are the glue of families," Dr. New-man says. "They're the keepers of generations of history and traditions. Having them around your kids can only be a plus."
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.