Babysitting for grandkids may boost your wellbeing, but if you’re pressured into providing care, you may suffer, according to a new study by social scientists at Trinity College Dublin.
In general, grandparents who babysit report a slightly higher quality of life than grandparents who don’t, according to the study, which analyzed data from a survey of nearly 4,500 grandparents in Ireland.
Many grandparents are pressured into providing more care than they want to, which appears to be bad for their health.
But in detailed interviews with 48 additional Irish grandparents, researchers Christine McGarrigle, Virpi Timonen, and Richard Layte found that many grandparents are pressured into providing more care than they truly want to—and that their wellbeing consequently suffers.
Grandparents on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder seem to be under the most pressure to babysit intensively, since their kids are often unable to afford daycare.
For example, a retired housekeeper said she was compelled to keep a grueling babysitting schedule after her daughter gave birth at age 18 and returned to work and school.
“I remember saying to her one day, ‘Do you think I needed a baby in my life at that time?’” the woman said, according to an article that the scholars have drafted for an academic journal.
“I mean, I had four children to rear and I was on my own. I really didn’t need another child in my life, but I wasn’t left with a choice.”
“I thought at this stage in my life that it would be time for me to do things that I want to do, and it hasn’t worked out that way because the way life has gone, I mean, I am very tied with grandchildren and children.”
Other working-class grandparents also spoke of exhaustion and stress, and one even described herself as “wrecked.”
“These grandparents’ capacity to reduce their involvement was limited and they were usually unable to prioritize their own time and wellbeing,” the scholars concluded.
On the other hand, the affluent grandparents they interviewed reported feeling “complete control” over whether and how often they babysat, and many of them were providing no more than a few hours of care a week.
One retired teacher described his wife and himself as “lucky” because their adult child only needed them for occasional babysitting.
“We are fortunate that they are getting on with their lives,” he said. “They are fortunate to be working. They have a good home. They have good careers and a nice standard of living but at the same time they need a break. We are just involved with them in a family sense and it is good to be part of that and just to be supportive.”
Two other retired teachers were watching their granddaughter for nearly 25 hours every week, but only because they found it meaningful to do so.
“We hated the idea of the little one being put into a creche,” one member of this couple said. “It’s in our value system … and [her] language is really good, developed.”
“We do art, we do reading, we do like to read books, we have fun, we go for walks, we go off on the train, we have chats.”
The survey data also suggest that the haves and the have-nots are experiencing grandparenthood differently.
The survey shows a link between babysitting and wellbeing for grandparents from all socioeconomic groups. But lower-class grandparents who babysit more than 60 hours per month and don’t also engage in recreational activities report a worse quality of life and more symptoms of depression than lower-class grandparents who spend less time babysitting or who manage to combine intensive babysitting with recreation.
By contrast, affluent grandparents seem to benefit from intensive babysitting regardless of whether they’re also finding time for recreation, according to the survey.
The scholars attribute this difference to the likelihood that well-off grandparents only undertake intensive babysitting if they have the time, energy, and inclination for it, while disadvantaged grandparents tend to have childcare thrust upon them.
The Trinity study builds on several other recent inquiries into whether grandparents benefit or suffer from providing childcare.
Earlier this year, a small Australian study found that grandmothers who babysit once a week score higher on cognitive tests than grandmothers who babysit either more or less frequently than that.
Similarly, a study in China found a link between a moderate amount of grandchild care and good health, while intensive grandparenting was linked to health declines.