How to approach grandparent nannies

Having your parents (or, gulp, in-laws) as your nanny might not be as crazy as you think. Here are some tips on how to approach the situation.

Photo by Martin Meyer/Corbin/Glow Images

Amanda Craig*, a 38-year-old nurse, thought that her hiring her mother to be the nanny for her toddler was the perfect solution: Her mom could easily handle Craig and her husband’s unorthodox hours (they both frequently have to be at work well before the local daycare opens) and she trusted her. The arrangement worked out well – for a while. You know that unsettling moment where you find yourself sounding exactly like your mother? Craig has had the bizarre experience of hearing her then-four-year-old parroting hers.

“My mother is very negative,” says Craig. “And we soon started hearing that in our daughter. It was in her tone, her mannerisms hearing her sternly say ‘This is how we do it,’ just like my mother was really weird.”

There are other issues, too – Craig’s mother fills Sarah up with junk food, and trips to the dollar store means she comes home with armfuls of cheap toys. Craig’s discipline strategy of time outs when Sarah misbehaves are ignored by her mom, and attempts to talk to her about any of this are greeted with defensiveness. Living in rural Nova Scotia, Craig felt stuck when it came to other child care options, but fortunately, now that Sarah’s in school, her schedule means there is now less of a need for her mother’s involvement. Had any other child care worker totalled up this many infractions, she may have been let go. But with family comes complexity ; and having grandparents (usually a mother or mother-in-law) as the nanny has both special baggage and unique benefits.

*   Name changed by request

?Photo by Jessica Lucia/Flickr

Who’s the boss
Craig’s frustrations aren’t unusual and can be filed under a common misunderstanding: Just who is the parent? “For grandparents, a sense of ownership around the children is hard,” says Marion Balla, a family therapist (and grandmother) in Ottawa. “It’s our second chance. Sometimes we want to redo what we didn’t do, or do more of what weren’t able to do with our own children. We might need to be gently reminded that they’re your kids, not ours.”

This sense of ownership can cast a pall on everything from discipline strategies to what constitutes a healthy meal. If you’re finding yourself repeatedly having to explain or defend your parenting style, Balla suggests approaching it from an information-sharing angle: Acknowledge that yes, things used to be different, and yes, we all turned out fine despite being tossed in the back of the station wagon, but ideas on child rearing have changed. Offer recent articles on the issue at hand. (Of course, if you sense your child is in any danger – your father’s driving isn’t quite what it used to be, for example – it’s time find an immediate alternative.)

Photo by Monkey Business Images/istockphoto.com

Assess your own relationship first
For some lucky families, the arrangement works wonderfully. For Connie Behr, 40, having her mother assist with the care of her two boys (two and four years old) is better than she ever imagined. “I honestly don’t know how I would survive parenting without her,” she says. “Traditions, stories, memories, recipes – all of that has a chance to continue. And I trust her. I never have to wonder if they’re getting the proper care.” Another perk, of course, is the financial relief that it provides (although some parents decide to pay their mothers). “It’s not the main reason we do it, but it helps,” says Behr.

So what’s the secret to their success? Behr is quick to point out that her connection with her mother has always been strong – and that’s key.

“If you have a terribly fractured history with your mother, she might not be the best caretaker for your child,” says Diane Mcleaghn, a family therapist in Calgary.

Even if her bond with your child is wonderful, if your relationship with the caregiver is strained, it might prove incredibly stressful, especially if ongoing communication between you is tricky. “Both sides need to be able to express their needs, and to come up with a system – like a log book – to share what’s going on day to day,” says Mcleaghn. And, of course, to be able to calmly discuss issues as they arise. She recalls hearing of one little boy who was returning from days at his grandparents’ house extolling the delights of “dessert” – something his sweets-averse parents had made clear they were against. Tensions mounted, until a simple conversation revealed that his “dessert” was, in fact, yogurt.

?Photo by Monkey Business Images/istockphoto.com

It takes a village
Jenny Lee* and her husband made the decision to take the idea of multi-generational caring a step further – actually finding a home they and their two children (two and five) could share with her parents. It was a choice that was met with some initial misgiving – mostly from Lee’s husband – but she says their days are filled with proof that they’ve made the right decision. “When we wake up there’s not an immediate need to tend to the kids because my parents are making them breakfast. Or when I have to rush to deal with one child and I don’t have to worry about the other one. These five-minute clips throughout the day infinitely lower my stress level.” For the busy lawyer, and her equally busy husband, not having to run for the daycare pickup is a lifesaver. And walking into a calm house with dinner on the stove is just the icing on the cake. But Lee’s happiness is really about building their family bond. “ The more my kids love my parents, the greater I feel. If that was the case with a nanny, I don’t know how happy that would make me. That relationship isn’t long-term – this one is.”

*   Name changed by request

?Photo by Judy Merrill-Smith/Flickr

When to call it quits
If you’re finding your arrangement is becoming a constant power struggle, it might be time to move on: You can fire your parents or in-laws. “It might not be pretty ,” warns Mcleaghn. “But do it kindly.” Don’t frame it as a firing, she says, but as a shift. Talk about all of the activities they can still do with their grandchild and make it clear that the relationship will continue – it will just look different.

“Let them know that you want them to really be able to enjoy their grandchildren says Mcleaghn, “and not have take care of them.”

* Name changed by request

A version of this article appeared in print in our May 2012 issue with the headline: “Granny Nanny” (p.70).

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