Too young to be a grandparent

People who become grandparents at 40 or 50 may have more energy to keep up with their grandchildren, but may also experience conflicted feelings

When her daughter gave birth to a baby girl, Ms L. Loh found it hard to accept becoming a grandmother at the age of 43.

She asked her granddaughter to call her "auntie", but the girl, now five, persisted in calling her "ah ma".

Putting aside the joy of welcoming a new addition to the family, becoming a grandparent in your 40s and early 50s can be unsettling. There can be an uncomfortable period of self- scrutiny, with conflicting emotions.

Some, like Ms Loh, a manager in the logistics industry, feel that being called "grandma" or "grandpa" makes them feel old. Others, like Mr Mohd Shariff Mohd Yatim, 55, feel they want to look more mature.

When his first grandchild, Ryanna Sofia Raihan, was born five months ago, he grew a beard. The executive director of Jamiyah Halfway House, a rehabilitation centre, wanted to signal - to others and himself - that he was "ready to lead as a grandfather".

But when people started offering him their seats in public places, he felt embarrassed.

Young grandparents may experience other kinds of conflicted feelings about arriving at a stage of life earlier than expected, saysMs Theresa Bung, principal therapist at the non-profit Family Life Society. She specialises in counselling families and couples.

Some have to set aside projects or plans. Some may still be working and feel guilty about the limited time they can spend with their grandchildren, especially if they have their own children to care for.

Some are unhappy that their unwed teenaged children become parents.

But those The Sunday Times interviewed say there are more advantages than disadvantages to their early grandparenthood.

A constant refrain is that young grandparents have more energy to keep up with their grandchildren.

Housewife Loh Lay San was 52 when her grandson came along. Since her daughter Jessica's four-month-long maternity leave ended, she has been taking care of Jeremiah, now nine months old, with the help of her maid.

Ms Loh, now 53, takes Jeremiah for walks in the morning in the grounds of her condominium, looking out for squirrels and snails. She often takes him swimming.

At the end of the day, she sometimes goes for a pilates class or gym session on the elliptical machine.

Young grandparents also tend to have more in common with their adult offspring when it comes to child-rearing, which can lead to closer family ties.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, 54, who became a grandfather on New Year's Eve last year when his daughter Natalie gave birth to her first child, had told The Straits Times: "I have always believed that it is good to start early. We are glad our daughter heeded our advice."

But for manager Ms L. Loh, now 49, the feeling that she was too young to be a grandmother stemmed from her own experience.

She had struggled as a young mum herself. A year after she married at 18, she had the first of her four children.

She felt that her daughter, who married at 21 and had her first child a year later, was "too young" to be a mother. She says: "I was worried she might go through the same situation as me. Handling career and kids at the same time is challenging and requires support."

Ms Loh's in-laws had helped her care for her infant. She had yearned for more support from her own mother, though she understood later that her mum, who worked as a dishwasher, was "too busy" caring for Ms Loh's four other siblings. Her father, she says, was frequently not at home during her childhood.

But her concerns about being a grandmother faded eventually.

Her daughter, the second of her four children, moved in with her for a few months after giving birth. The time she spent with her daughter and grandchild made her see "the joy of seeing children growing day by day".

Her daughter, a 27-year-old sales executive, now has three daughters, aged between one and five.

Going by demographic trends, grandparents who are no older than 55 look to be increasingly scarce. Women in Singapore are having children later and fewer people are getting married, which means grandparents are likely to be older and fewer.

The median age of Singapore citizens when they have their first child was 30.3 in 2014, up from 29.2 a decade earlier, according to a report released last year by the National Population and Talent Division. There is no data publicly available regarding the median or average age of having one's first grandchild.

According to sociologist Tan Ern Ser, a smaller age gap between the generations "translates into a narrower gap in terms of language, education, experience, interests and values".

"There may be greater potential for forming cohesive three-generational households," says the associate professor at the National University of Singapore's department of sociology, who is also a council member at Families for Life, an organisation that promotes resilient families.

Indeed, public servant Jessica Bin, 25, says the relative youthfulness of her mum, Ms Loh Lay San, 53, and her dad, 57-year-old Tony Bin, means they share a similar parenting philosophy.

For instance, both sides agree on the importance of play and enjoying the outdoors for children, says Ms Bin's husband, engineer Jerwin Aligguy, 27.

Her grandchild's arrival sealed Ms Loh's decision to sell off her business, an enrichment centre she co-owned, last year. "It was perfect timing, time not to be working that hard," says Ms Loh, who had been mulling over other options such as pursuing a master's degree in counselling, before she volunteered to take care of Jeremiah full-time.

As a working parent when her three children were growing up, she says she "wasn't as hands-on" then as she is with her grandson now.

And Ms Bin says her parents' support has "made the transition to parenthood easier".

Balancing work and family life as a new mum was made easier for civil servant Venessa Lim, 29, because her mum, Ms Joanne Chua, is a young grandmother.

Ms Chua, founder and director of a jewellery shop, became a grandmother at 54 when her elder daughter Venessa's son, Asher, was born.

Ms Lim says it helps that her mother, now 56, is still working as she is "able to better understand our challenges relating to work and having a toddler. It helped alleviate the stress of my going back to the workforce as a new mum".

Having taken five months' no-pay leave on top of four months' maternity leave, Ms Lim did not have many days off when she returned to work.

Like some other children who are in childcare, Asher, now 18 months old, is prone to falling ill and Ms Chua sometimes takes leave to care for him.

Family culture was a factor that influenced Ms Lim in having children earlier rather than later.

Ms Chua, whose daughter calls her a "benchmark", married at 26 like Ms Lim did and both of them had children in their late 20s.

Ms Lim and her husband, regional sales manager Alvin Lin, 30, dated for nine years before getting married. The couple and their son live with her parents.

Her father, sales operations manager Ferry Lim, 60, says he encouraged her to have a child early so he could play with the child.

"After being married for more than 30 years, my communication with my wife would also be broader with a grandchild," he adds.

Another pleasing aspect of being a young grandparent is simply looking younger than expected.

Ms Aida Atan was 48 when her grandchild, Mohammad Rayyan Sufiyan Sophia'an, was born.

Now 50 and caring for him full-time, she says that strangers sometimes mistake her for his mother. When she corrects them, they sometimes exclaim disbelievingly, "Sure or not?"

Ms Aida, who had left a stressful administrative job around the time Rayyan was born two years ago, was happy to be a grandmother and pass on parenting advice to her daughter.

"It had been a long time since our family had a baby in the house," she says. Her daughter, Ms Nur Nadia Jafreeli, is a 25-year-old administrator and her 20-year-old son is doing his national service.

In fact, Ms Aida feels more like a parent than a grandparent. "It's like I'm having another youngest child, another newborn."

While Ms Nur Nadia says she is glad her son is close to his grandmother, experts caution that young grandparents need to respect their adult children's new role.

Ms Shelen Ang, principal trainer at Focus on the Family Singapore, says: "Since it may not have seemed that long ago that their children were still under their care, young grandparents need to be mindful that they do not take over the role of their children as parents.

"Their children need to be given space to grow into their own style of parenting."

Jamiyah Halfway House's Mr Mohd Shariff says he "respects the boundaries of my grandchild's parents" - his 28-year-old daughter, staff nurse Surianti Mohd Shariff, and her husband, customer relations officer Raihan Abdul Rashid, also 28.

"We are cautious not to hurt one another's feelings," he adds.

While young grandparents like him thrive in their new role, other seniors are content with their already busy lives.

Mr Albert Chitty, 60, who handles logistics in a hospital, has a 33- year-old son who got married last year and a 25-year-old daughter.

"I have a full, active life. I'm not thinking about grandchildren yet," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'Too young to be a grandparent'. Print Edition | Subscribe