These grandparents are building a special relationship with their granddaughter
by Iris Winston
photos by Jérôme Scullino
Milana Wheeler almost always has at least one adult in tow. You could call it the first-grandchild effect — or it may simply be that this young charmer exercises special magic; but, at any family gathering, she invariably has a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle by the hand. So when her parents Dina and Stephen Wheeler were considering daycare options as they approached the end of Dina’s maternity leave, Dina had “pangs of guilt” at the thought of leaving her baby with strangers.
“For a whole year, it was just the two of us together all day long,” says Dina. “I knew I was going to have a really hard time with leaving her.”
Then, Stephen’s parents, Sue and Mike Wheeler, stepped in with an offer to take care of their granddaughter. Instead of having Mila attend a commercial daycare, they were ready to be her regular daycare providers.
The two main reasons for their proposal, says Sue, were that this was “a chance to build our relationship with our grandchild and we just didn’t like the thought of her going to daycare.”
“When Sue and Mike told me this is what they wanted to do, it was a dream come true for Stephen and me,” says Dina. “It was such a relief to know that they would be watching Mila. She knows them and is comfortable with them and I don’t feel so guilty leaving her. I know she is happy from the minute she is dropped off. If I had gone to a daycare with her, I wouldn’t know how she would get along for a while and I would worry.”
Parting is still a wrench, she adds, but she is secure in the knowledge that Mila is being cherished while they are apart. The routine is that Stephen delivers his daughter to his parents’ house in the west end of Ottawa at 7:30 a.m. (bringing her lunch with him) before heading to work, while Dina, who starts work at 7:30 a.m., picks her (and any of the babe’s dirty laundry) up at 3:30 p.m. or the older Wheelers take her home. “Whenever we can, we take Mila back,” says Sue, “so that Dina doesn’t get caught in the rush hour.
But when she comes here to collect Mila, we make time for a cup of tea and a chat.”
Clearly, this is a close family and the daycare arrangement — which frequently includes Stephen’s sisters, Sarah and Jessica, and Dina’s parents and her siblings when the younger Wheelers are visiting Dina’s family in Toronto — is about enjoying sharing the care of Mila.
But, says Sue, before she and Mike approached their son and daughter-in-law with the daycare offer, they talked about dividing the child-minding duties.
“I knew that I needed his full support. It had to be a two-person job,” says Sue. “I couldn’t have done it alone, especially now that Mila is walking. But having both of us involved means that we can each continue with a life and still enjoy our granddaughter.” Mike, adds Sue, generally takes the early-morning shift, as he tends to be up first, while she takes over later. But, says Mike, the daily routine varies, depending on Mila’s needs. And whenever the baby is restless, a walk in the local park with her and their golden retriever, Meg, always has a calming influence.
“It wasn’t a hard decision to do this at all,” says Mike. “Even while Dina was still on maternity leave, I would take Mila for long walks in her stroller around the Glebe or down by the canal, just to get in practice.”
The senior Wheelers were aware, of course, that their daycare commitment meant that they would not travel as they had done since they retired more than seven years ago. (Sue had been in a child-oriented profession as a teaching assistant at a Montessori school, while Mike was a patent agent.) In the early years of their retirement, they had sailed far and wide in their boat. Since Mila joined them, the boat has been in dry dock.
“But, in effect, it’s a daytime job, so we can still go out in the evenings and meet with friends during the day,” says Sue. “It’s working very well for all of us. Dina and Steve are so open to what we do and we have asked them to tell us how they want us to handle things. We are aware that we must be careful not to take on the parent role and we try to distinguish between the grandparent and caregiver roles, balancing preserving the relationship and still keeping control. So far, it is not an issue but Mila is still very young.”
Soon, they will be taking Mila to such activities as storytime at the local library and swimming and music classes for toddlers — all activities their own children enjoyed as youngsters.
“We regard this as an opportunity to have a special relationship with our granddaughter,” smiles Sue, adding that the original decision was made with a time limit in mind. That deadline was until Dina’s next maternity leave, which they have just discovered begins next spring. And, she says the jury is still out on whether formal grandparent daycare will be needed with two grandchildren or whether Dina will extend her time at home with her babies. But, whatever the future holds with regard to the formal daycare arrangement, Sue and Mike will see plenty of their grandchildren as they have just purchased a home a stone’s throw away from them.
The ABC s of Grandparent Daycare
Arrange the details early.
Ask the important questions, e.g. What is the time commitment? Will money exchange hands? Who does the laundry? Where will the child be cared for? Is the grandparents’ home child-proofed?
Set the boundaries. Family or not, respect each other’s situations.
Grandparents: Differentiate between the roles of caregiver and grandparent.
Aim for consistency in discipline styles for parents and grandparents.
Parents: Be punctual. Don’t impose by asking for extra babysitting services beyond the regular times that have been agreed.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Parents: Tell the caregiver what you expect and explain the child’s special needs in detail. Written instructions are always a good idea.
Grandparents: Tell the parents how the day went. Alert them to any problems (but don’t emphasize the negative).
And the bottom line: Grandparents, this is a great chance to enjoy a very special time with your grandchildren.