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Hiring Grandma

When Vonronica Kolidakis became pregnant, one worry overshadowed all her others: Would she be able to find reasonably priced, high-quality childcare for her baby? Kolidakis, who lives in Rockville, Maryland, couldn't afford to quit her job. She also couldn't afford to pay the $300 weekly fee for childcare centers in her area.

Kolidakis's worries ended when her mother, Joyce Chew, volunteered to retire early so that she could look after her grandchild. "When she offered, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders," says Kolidakis, whose son, Arhyk, is now 14 months old.

Of course, this option isn't for everybody. Read on to see what to consider before asking one of your parents to care for your baby, and to see what mothers and grandmothers have to say about making the arrangement work.

Child Care: Should You Hire a Family Member?
Child Care: Should You Hire a Family Member?

One of the most obvious perks of having a grandparent as your child's caregiver is the money you may save. Some families require flexible hours that only in-home care can offer, and that may be easier to ask of a relative than of a sitter with kids of her own. Then there's the emotional payoff. My mother watches my 13-month-old son, Eric, while I work, and I'm thrilled that she has a front-row seat for the magic of Eric's babyhood. Indeed, spending so much time together sets the groundwork for a unique bond between child and grandparent. For the child, the caregiver grandparent is a link to family history. "Grandparents can help pass on treasured family memories and ethnic traditions," says Bill Maier, a licensed clinical psychologist and vice president of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.

Memories can be shared during visits and on holidays, too, but family rituals may be more ingrained if they are part of daily life. Still, as any mom knows, caring for a baby for eight to ten hours a day is exhausting. What's in it for the grandparent? For some, it's an opportunity to forge a strong bond with her grandchild, to help her adult child, or to spend the time with a baby that she missed out on when she was a young mother forging her own career. "By allowing me to take care of my grandson, my daughter has made my golden years pure gold," says Janet Larson, who cares for her grandson, Connor.

Unfortunately, some grandparents are simply not cut out for this arrangement. "My mother-in-law is constantly offering to care for my baby once she's born," says Jane Stepan of Salem, Massachusetts, who's pregnant. "But she has uncontrolled high blood pressure and diabetes. She could suffer a medical emergency and the baby would be left uncared for." Other parents have safety concerns. "My mom is great at playing with babies, but I'm afraid she would get flustered if someone got hurt and wouldn't have the presence of mind to call 911," says one mother of two.

There's also the issue of spoiling. If the grandparent can't resist showering your child with gifts, neglects discipline, and ignores the rules you've laid out, she's not right for the job. "Every time I leave my kids with my mother, she flagrantly defies my rules," says Kate Beller of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. "I once saw her giving my then 2-year-old a huge wad of gum he could have choked on."

Last, if you and your mother or mother-in-law don't have a good relationship, having her babysit full-time won't bring you closer or cure those ills. "If you find her to be controlling, manipulative, and bossy, it doesn't make sense to have her care for your child," says Maier.

If you do decide to try the arrangement, use these strategies:

  • Respect each other. "I don't tell my mother what to do, but if she does something I don't like, I'll ask her to do it differently the next time," says Kolidakis. Yes, the caregiver should let the Mom's rules rule, but that doesn't give you license to flip out every time Grandma slips and feeds your baby squash instead of peas. Stand firm on rules that involve the baby's health and safety (car seat!) and allow flexibility in others (she doesn't wear a bib -- the onesie is washable). You also need to respect each other's time and privacy.
  • Do a dry run. Before you return to work, have Grandma spend several days assisting you with baby care so she'll know the routine and where you store medications, wipes, and favorite toys. You'll also need to show her how to install the car seat and the best route to the pediatrician's office and emergency room.
  • Write it down. Leave a copy of all pertinent phone numbers. If there's a general schedule you'd like her to follow, such as morning outing, lunch at home, then nap, jot that down, but keep it minimal. Hints (Katie naps with the pink bear) are helpful; orders (wash her with warm water at 12:15) are condescending.
  • Check in regularly. Periodically asking each other how it's going will give you an opportunity to address concerns as they come up. If there's a built-in dialogue, you're less likely to offend a grandparent if you suggest getting a part-time sitter so she can have afternoons off.
  • Plan to be flexible. "Be open to feedback," Maier says. "Grandma may have some valuable ideas that would benefit your child." The caregiver who is with your child much of the day may know which song will soothe your baby when she falls apart on you at dinner.
  • Be consistent. "If there's inconsistency in the way parents and grandparents discipline, it will confuse and ultimately harm the child," Maier says. Share books, leave out parenting articles, or refer her to parenting Web sites if she balks at some of your decisions.
  • Strike a financial deal. Compensation should be addressed up front. If Grandma refuses payment, be creative. Kolidakis bought a CD player for her mother's car; other parents take the caregiver to dinner weekly.
  • Arrange backup care. Everyone gets sick or has an appointment that can't be rescheduled. Find a daycare center or sitter that will accept your baby on an as-needed basis when necessary.
  • Communicate and compromise. Though I wasn't pleased that my mother had given Eric, then 10 months old, chocolate candy, I didn't protest. Instead, I suggested he have chocolate only twice a week, and she agreed.
  • Be realistic about expectations. Realize that circumstances change (your job could shift, or Grandma might want more time to herself). If that happens, suggest an alternate plan, like part-time hours, and assure the grandparent that she'll still be a huge part of your child's life. Soften the blow by saying, "I think Timmy would really benefit if you could just be his grandma, and not his sitter too. He loves you so much."

However long your arrangement lasts, having your child spend time with his grandmother may prove to be one of the best decisions you could have made for your whole family.

Cynthia Hanson is a Philadelphia-area writer.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.