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Grandchildren: The great reward for growing old

We grandmothers are a band of lovesick indulgers whose ability to say "no" seems to be disabled the day our grandbabies are born. We sneak them candy when mum says "no", we let them play on iPads, read them Fancy Nancy over and over… and over. We get out our wallets whenever they point to something and say: "I want dat." Yup, that's us. And it's Grampa, too. Someone wise said, "If God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his grandson, he'd have said, 'No way!'"

As a demographic, we have swelled into a giant bulge in the population. There are more than 27,000 new grandparents in the United States every week. Many are the "revolutionaries" of the 1960s and 70s - the pioneer women who entered the white-collar workforce. Well, now, 40, 50 years later, these same women are pioneers again, this time reinventing grandparenting.

One way is that we're in our grandchildren's lives more than ever before, whether from across the country, thanks to Skype and FaceTime, or as "granny nannies" - in some cases full time.

And my generation is spending more money on our grandchildren, 64 per cent more than grandparents did just 10 years ago, doling out, for instance, roughly US$4.3 billion (S$6 billion) a year on primary and secondary school tuition. We're also spending on everyday needs like baby food, clothes and tricycles as well as big-ticket items like the crib, the stroller and a piano (that was me). We're straightening their teeth when they get a little older.

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Over and over, grandparents have whispered to me, "Don't use our name, but we bought their house" or "We pay their rent". I know a couple who moved out of their rent-stabilised apartment so that their daughter and new baby could move in. In our case, we help pay for pre-school and the nanny. When our first grandchild was born, we even turned a room in our apartment into a nursery, hoping that if we provided all the comforts of home, our daughter and son-in-law would visit often. We bought a crib, bedding, diapers, bottles and - I couldn't help myself - a sweet bassinet that alone cost us a crazy US$500. When it arrived, we had to put the darned thing together ourselves, with that insufferable Allen wrench.

This is such a trend that there are now grandma showers. Really. So we can stock up on baby monitors and sippy cups. Brides get Cuisinarts; we get the Snotsucker.

According to the writer, grandparents are in their grandchildren's lives more than ever before, with the young parents worn out and stretched thin, and the grandparents wanting a second chance at parenting.
According to the writer, grandparents are in their grandchildren's lives more than ever before, with the young parents worn out and stretched thin, and the grandparents wanting a second chance at parenting. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

One reason we pioneers have become the family piggy bank is a generational inversion: It used to be that the middle-aged took care of their elderly parents; more and more, it's the other way round. Today, most 60- and 70-year-olds have more money than 40- and 50-year-olds. Grandparents get their monthly Social Security checks; many have paid off their mortgage; and large numbers remain on the job, earning money. Almost a third of women aged 65 to 69 still work, while 18 per cent of those aged 70 to 74 do. Some grandmas put off retiring specifically to help support the grandchildren.

Many of us want a second chance. As working mothers, we carried around bales of guilt because we felt (or were made to feel) we weren't there enough for our children. We know what we missed out on, so we're making up for it by pouring not just money but also time into our grandchildren. My daughter likes to remind me how much I loathed taking her to the park. As a workaholic reporter in Washington covering the White House, I would push her on a swing and read a research paper at the same time. Today, I love taking my granddaughters to the park, playing tea party, sitting on the floor with them colouring. My attention is all theirs.

Most of the grandparents I know are like me: We'll do anything to hold those babies. We're the babysitters who beg to come over, an offer that's hard to refuse since we don't charge a dime.

Childcare - good childcare - is grossly expensive. It can cost more than college. Young parents who would've said "no, thanks" to help from their own parents in the past (I did) are inviting them in out of necessity. Very likely they're both working - many are overworking. They're worn out and stretched thin. According to one survey of millennials, more than half said their parents helped out around the house in a typical week; the average got 24 hours of childcare a week, from babysitting to chauffeuring the children, and an additional 21 hours of cooking and cleaning. Just think how much time and money is being saved for the parents.

Given the intensity of grandparent love, I've been surprised by how many people cringe at the idea of being identified as a granny or a gramps. There's fear of a stigma, a penalty to being seen as "that old". Even United States President Donald Trump winced when I asked him during the campaign if he's called Grandpa. Well, guess what: The estimated average age of a new grandmother in America is 50; 54 for a new grandfather. I myself took heart when I read that Mick Jagger is a great-grandfather (at 73), as is Ringo Starr (at 76). Whoopi Goldberg is a great-grandma at just 61.

Having grandchildren is the great reward for enduring the indignities of ageing. Holding your baby's baby is life-affirming. It's joyous. With our own children, the love was tempered by responsibility. We had to guide them, keep them safe, get them through school, teach them manners, on and on. Grandparent love is unfettered and pure. And we feel better about ourselves being "yes" people than scolding mamas.

When we grandparents are in the lives of the children, they get adoring, unconditional love, the parents get free childcare, and we, the grannies and pops, rather than getting older, feel younger, healthier and happier. Everyone wins.

NY TIMES

• The writer, a correspondent for the CBS programme 60 Minutes, is the author of Becoming Grandma: The Joys And Science Of The New Grandparenting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline 'Grandchildren: The great reward for growing old'. Print Edition | Subscribe