The new parent status symbol: Do the grandparents help or not?

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Leanne Skaf sees the envious looks she gets at playgrounds when other parents spot her mother helping her care for her three kids.

“If I didn’t have support, I probably wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things,” says the Blakehurst-based businesswoman. “I would be a lot more consumed with my children instead of actually building a career and enjoying married life, just him and me.”

Grandparents have become a playground status symbol for parents.Credit: iStock

Far more valuable than expensive prams and designer carriers, the real status symbol that separates parents in the most difficult early years of raising kids is: how much support do you get from grandparents?

With the constant demands of caregiving, it has become clear that the currency new parents deal in is not measured in dollars, but in support.

“The currency is, who is supporting you and how are you supported?” says Jessica Rudd, mother of two and acting chief executive of The Parenthood, a non-profit that advocates for Australian parents.

“My parents had helped along the way quite a lot, actually. Particularly when I came home to have my first, and also when my second child was born, I was in the throes of developing my business. And my mum took time away from her role to come and be with me, which was lovely.”

University of Melbourne sociology professor Lyn Craig researched parenting stress using the data of employed couples with children under five over a 15-year time span. During this time, she found parents were less likely to report parenting stress – defined as feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, feeling trapped and exhausted, and finding parenthood more work than pleasure – if they had help from grandparents.

Rudd says the shift from a work environment to the chaos of parenting increases awareness about how others are coping.

“You’ve gone from being the kind of person who has mascara on and walks into an office building, and pops out for coffee and a toilet break whenever she feels like it, to ‘should I go to the toilet or put the kettle on or wash my hair because this child is napping for longer than anticipated?’” she says.

“When you’re parenting, and you’re on the frontline … coping is winning.”

Changing dynamics

According to a 2017 report by Australian Seniors, an insurer, 73 per cent of grandparents said they take care of their grandchildren on a regular basis.

“We’re noticing grandparents are very much involved these days. Their involvement to support young mothers for workforce participation is becoming really essential,” says Craig, the sociologist. “Socially, there does seem to be a push to have more women in the workforce from both generations.”

But there are many valid reasons grandparents aren’t able to help with caring responsibilities. Not all new parents still have parents of their own who are alive, and not all grandparents can physically help look after kids, or live close enough to do so. Other grandparents simply don’t want to. How do these parents cope?

Parenting challenges

Ashlee Bager, 32, and Francisco Morales, 34, are a young couple with a one-year-old, Mateo. As they have no family living nearby, they love it when their parents on either side, who live interstate and overseas respectively, come to visit.

“Because we don’t have family here, everyone is curious to know how we are coping. It seems to come up … how we live. And our routine. I guess people are curious,” Bager says. “I try not to compare – I’m definitely grateful for Francisco – but it would be nice to have immediate family from either side.”

Ashlee Bager with her son Mateo.Credit: Louise Kennerley

For parents who don’t have familial support nearby, Craig says that research shows women can often feel overburdened when it comes down to the gendered division of labour. “There has to be support for mothers of young children because it’s a very demanding role.”

But if this support isn’t able to come from grandparents – who after often the stopgap when the public system fails, according to Rudd – what solutions are available?

“When we encourage dads to take [parental] leave, then employers can also anticipate that it is not just women who take parental leave, but also men,” says Rudd.

“This will then hopefully, put us in good stead like what we’ve seen in countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland. Our overall ambition would be to get to 52 weeks [parental leave] 26 weeks still puts us well behind Poland, Greece, the Czech Republic, we’re falling behind the OECD average, we can do better than that in this country.”

While many grandparents find immense joy in helping care for young kids, Rudd believes it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to provide essential services, like affordable childcare, to new parents. Until then, having familial help will remain the status symbol it is today.

Generational living

Skaf, the Blakehurst mum, shrugs off the comments from acquaintances about how lucky she is to have her parents helping out with her kids, but agrees she is well-supported.

“Coming from a Lebanese background when someone needs you, we tend to all gather in on that person. And help wherever we can,” she says.

“The way we’ve been brought up, if you’re not living for your children and your grandchildren, then who are you living for?”

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