Doting or distant ... battle of the grans

Different styles of grandparenting can cause conflict within families, whether grandma is doting or distant.
Different styles of grandparenting can cause conflict within families, whether grandma is doting or distant.

The bitter arguments over working mothers have spread to the older generation. Why do different grandparenting styles cause such rancour, asks Eleanor Mills.

We have heard a lot about the mummy wars - stay-at-homes versus the working variety. The skirmishes are often vicious because they go to the core of women's values and choices. But now there is a new schism. Welcome to the granny wars.

This conflict is complicated by being intergenerational as well as attitudinal. In a nutshell, it is the gaping chasm between the hands-on, Carole Middleton-style grandmother, and those for whom a short, occasional visit is enough.

Middleton pops into Kensington Palace from Berkshire several times a week, created a nursery suite at her Bucklebury home for Prince George and his parents, Kate and William, stepped in as maternity nurse, offered to go on tour to Australia with the couple to be George's nanny.

Frankly, for this kind of grandma nothing is too much trouble.

Her counterpart is more like the Queen: glad to see the little blighters on high days and holidays (for a limited time) but equally delighted to hand them back and ultimately more interested in getting on with life.

The Queen is emblematic of a more distant kind of modern grandparent - and indeed great-grandparent.

This more detached mode of grandparenting can cause friction in families. If you have the kind of parents who prefer to gad around the world, are still wrapped up in their careers/interests and don't see providing free childcare as a key part of retirement, you are bound to envy a friend - or sibling - with a different kind of grandparental service.

I know one granny who commutes from Ludlow, Shropshire, and sleeps on her son's sofa in London during the week to look after her grandsons, while he and his wife go out to work.

Another granny is so detached that she has visited her daughter's family at their new home only once in 18 months. Her Christmas visit was typical: a quick whip round the local cathedral followed by a lightning pizza lunch, and she couldn't wait to get back in her car to return to London.

For her, those two hours with her three grandchildren were enough. Her spasm of grand-maternality did not extend to seeing the new house or the children's prized bedrooms.

The trouble with the chasm between hyper-attached and non-attached grandparenting is the confusion it sows in terms of expectations.

Those with absent mothers feel more bereft when their partner has grandma ensconced permanently in the kitchen. One friend got so desperate about her mother's lack of engagement with her children, she decided to challenge her.

"Don't you want to spend time with your grandchildren and the rest of your own offspring?" she asked.

Backed into a corner, this jet-setting grandma conceded that she did not particularly. After raising four children, she had done her bottom-wiping years and preferred spending time with people of her own age.

"I reckoned on 20 years of motherhood," she said. "I raised my kids to fly. Now it's time for me." Fair enough.

The offspring of such mothers have to learn to downgrade their expectations. If you see any involvement or help as an unexpected bonus, that is healthier than a constant spiral of resentment.

Reality equals expectation minus disappointment. Underlying some of this is a profound value clash between baby-boomer and Generation X attitudes to child-rearing.

Gen-Xers - the creators of helicopter parenting - are far more intensively involved in stimulating and programming their children's lives than their parents were.

A glance at Gransnet (Mumsnet for grannies) shows even the hands-on grannies chafe at the burdens of 21st-century parenting. As they tussle with car seats (back in the 1970s no one bothered) and get told off for feeding the kids biscuits, or non-organic food, it's not surprising some opt out.

Gransnet is full of older women biting their tongues, sharing their terror that something awful will happen to their grandchildren while they are in their charge (which their ogre offspring would never forgive them for) and reminiscing about how in their day they just chucked the children outside to play.

Interestingly, the grannies who don't want their grandchildren to take over their lives are often the women who were the pioneering generation of working mothers. Just as they battled in their child-rearing years not to let their children derail or direct their lives, now, as grandmothers, they continue their fight for self-determination.

Let's not forget that the baby-boomers are the selfish generation, the ones who put their own self-actualisation ahead of everything else, whether it was getting divorced, being the first rebellious teenagers or hoping they died before they got old and responsible.

Not all are like that. Women who stayed at home and who put raising their family at the centre of their lives are - unsurprisingly - likely to go on playing that role as grandparents.

In fact 200,000 grandparents care full-time for up to 300,000 children and one in four families uses a granny for childcare - and 63 per cent of all grandparents care for under-16s.

But even these dedicated grannies grumble that their children take them for granted (they are expected not only to look after the grandchildren but their children too, and often a sick or deteriorating spouse).

A common Gransnet moan is how offspring assume their parents are still as sprightly as they were and forget their dear mum isn't eternally 47 but is actually 60 or 70-something and finds running around after a toddler all day shattering.

You can't win - those blessed with uber-involved mothers-in-law all too often grumble about intrusion - a small price to pay, surely, for all that help, love and support.

I can't help wondering whether some of the fury and bitterness I come across about uninvolved grandparents isn't the amplification of an earlier lack. Many of my generation who had working mothers, for instance, talk about how they longed for it to be Mum, not an au pair, at the school gate.

Many now find that angst resurrected by how that mother, now a grandmother, behaves with her grandchildren.

Interestingly, daughters of driven career women often seem to take the opposite route, becoming fulltime mothers or taking work that lets them spend time with their children.

This is a new, cross-generational front in the mummy wars and emblematic of the tough decisions the emancipation of women throws up. I am not saying mothers shouldn't work, or that these female working pioneers failed their children. All I am venturing is that women's decisions about their lives spawn continuing dilemmas. This one will run and run.

The Southland Times