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Joyful, exhausting: The highs and lows of being a modern-day grandmother

Around the country, countless women play a crucial part in their grandchildren’s lives. But it’s a role we don’t often hear about. Ahead, three hands-on grandmothers talk about the joys and challenges of helping raise the next generation. As Sue puts it: “I’m going to be honest about the hard bits.”

Sue, 60s

When Sue’s first grandchild was born, like many enthusiastic grandparents she was “desperate” to help out.

“I absolutely adore kids but the mistake I made was not waiting to be asked for help,” says the former school teacher. “After an honest conversation with my son, I learnt that grandparenting is about balance – of being available, but not overbearing.”

Since those newborn days, Sue and her husband have been an ongoing support to their adult children and have formed a strong connection with their granddaughters. “We regularly do school drop-off and pick-up and sometimes babysit on weekends and when they are sick.”

“I adore being with them. As a grandparent, you have time to notice the ‘buzzy’ moments. Their energy is endless but they are a motivation to stay fit.”

Sue calls grandparenting an “evolving role” – it’s learning to give enough but not too much of yourself. “Sometimes, adult kids can take advantage of your time. I’m not very good at saying ‘no’, so I’ll cancel my plans in order to babysit. That’s my decision; the only time I might regret it is when the parents are unappreciative or grumpy.”

For some, grandparenting can also bring anxiety. “In the back of your mind, there’s this chronic fear of losing contact with your grandkids if you offend their parents,” says Sue. “I don’t feel this fear strongly, but it exists.”

Ultimately, Sue says that among grandparents and adult children, “there’s a bit of courtesy required – on both sides”.

Jill, 64

For retired GP Jill Bell, many factors affect the grandparenting experience. It really depends on how many grandkids you have, whether you’re physically able, how much support the other grandparents provide, and if there are financial pressures on the parents, she ponders.

Jill has two school-aged grandkids and says that her caring role is mainly on her terms. “I was quite assertive setting the ground rules early on,” says Jill, who only recently retired.

She babysits one evening a week and helps with the school run once or twice weekly while her husband works full-time. “It’s an absolute pleasure. We love spending time with them. But I know in five years’ time, if we have more grandchildren, I won’t be as physically or mentally involved – it can get harder as you age.”

Jill’s osteoarthritis and occasional back issues mean that sometimes she can’t have the grandkids for extended periods. “I really try to help where I can, but if it’s too much, I’ll say.”

“I know from a lot of my friends, they become ‘Granny Nannies’ and feel stuck,” she adds. “My kids are pretty good. They are conscious of me having my own life too so the outside care is shared among the grandparents and school holiday programs.”

Justine, 52

“I didn’t expect to have such wonderful relationships with my grandbabies and I sure didn’t think I’d have so many of them at my age,” says Justine Martin, who has seven grandchildren aged between six months and 13 years.

The artist and author is and always wanted to be an active grandparent. “I have MS [multiple sclerosis] so sometimes it’s extra hard but I push myself,” she says.

This means regularly having a combination of her grandkids for sleepovers. “They have their own room here and I have clothes, nappies, bottles and toys, so there is never the need to pack a bag.”

For Justine, MS can sometimes cause nerve pain, fatigue, trouble moving and vision problems.

“If I’m having a bad day we don’t do any activities outside the home,” she says. “I have an art studio so lots of artwork gets created, or they play in their room. I don’t tend to worry too much about the mess they make as I have support workers that help me after the kids go home.”

Justine says she’s exhausted after babysitting. “It takes me a couple of days to recover and the house is like a bomb hit it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

A grandparent’s love is “different” and “intense”, she adds. “The stresses of being a new parent are not there and as we’re generally not the rule-makers, they have a different affection for you.”

The many sides of grandparenthood

It’s worth acknowledging that some grandparents have no involvement in their grandchildren’s lives, while others are raising their grandkids single-handedly. Grandparenting experiences are diverse and ever-evolving.

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Last updated: 
15 January 2024
Last reviewed: 
15 April 2024