Grandparents are the invisible glue, holding our broken childcare system together

<span>Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

I bought a book for my mother and the baby to read together. I Love My Granny talks about her “comfy tummy” and the fact that she has “lived for ages” and has “loads of time” on her hands, which frankly I find a bit rude. Nevertheless, it speaks to the loving and caring role that a grandparent can have in a child’s life. Seeing my baby bond with his grandparents has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being a parent so far.

The UK’s broken childcare system means that grandparents often have to step in to offer help, with one study finding that 85% offer some kind of support when it comes to looking after grandchildren. My parents are no different – my mum especially has been very present these past months – while my dad and stepmum, the baby’s nain and taid (Welsh words for grandmother and grandfather), practically begged to take him so we could swim in the sea and go out for dinner. His paternal grandparents have cared for his many cousins who live locally to them.

I must say I’m relieved that the baby has finally got a nursery place, as I’ve been feeling guilty about the amount of childcare my newly retired mum has been helping us with. I’m incredibly grateful and I’ve treated her to a posh spa day to mark her retirement and to say thank you, as well as covering her trains (she lives up north). She adores the baby and loves being with him, and he loves his “nonna”, so it’s not all toil. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel great that after decades of caring for my brother, who is autistic, and me, she is now taking on more labour just as she should be able to relax. I also feel guilty that she has been spending nights on the sofa, and that she caught Covid from us when she came to help. I owe her a great debt for sharing her time, wisdom and experience with my new little family.

I’m not the only one who feels guilty. One mother of a one-year-old tells me she has had to draft her mum in two days a week due to a lack of nursery spaces. It was that, she says, or resign. “I feel so guilty about the whole situation, even though it’s not really my fault,” she writes. “It’s such a burden on my mum – she is relatively young but it’s not fair to take up so much of her time with the slog of everyday childcare rather than her being able to savour special moments with my daughter at her convenience and leisure. It goes without saying that my mum is doing this all unpaid and wouldn’t accept it if we offered. To be honest, the fact that it is unpaid also means we can actually afford for me to be at work.”

Of course, there’s a difference between gratefully, and guiltily, accepting freely given offers of help and feeling entitled to it. One of the most bemusing aspects of the comedy series Motherland is the level of entitlement that stressed mum Julia, the protagonist, feels towards her mother, not to mention her mother’s indifference to her grandchildren. Furthermore, the close parent-child-grandchild relationships that many of us treasure are not everyone’s experience, and geography is a huge factor.

Related: Paint a friend’s ceiling, fix their bike, babysit – the best Christmas gifts don’t come from shops | Nell Frizzell

And what of grandfathers? It’s largely grandmothers who do the bulk of the caring, and I wonder if the sense of entitlement some parents feel to their labour can be blamed on tradition. Throughout human history, grandmothers played a large role in the upbringing of children, especially in working-class families where the mother was needed for paid work outside the home. Can we blame some of our mothers’ generation of second-wave feminists for resisting that, or for wondering when exactly the hard, physically demanding work will stop?

There are, of course, hands-on grandfathers (my dad is one, a man comfortable with all aspects of childcare). “My dad and I joke that he’s the world’s best grandpa, or an average grandma,” another mum, who has a three-year-old autistic son and a young baby, tells me. “My mum passed away years before I had children and my in-laws live further away, so I am very grateful he’s stepped up, and the relationship he has with his grandson is so beautiful.” Her son’s autism has made childcare difficult so her dad does two afternoons a week. “My dad’s always been good with toddlers and babies. He’s great at story time, can really make them laugh and talks to them like little adults, which they always appreciate,” she says. “But he wasn’t much for practical stuff, he didn’t really change nappies for me and my siblings when we were babies and hadn’t changed any for my son until we discussed the idea of him helping out when I went back to work.”

As well as all the hands-on help, it’s lovely to read about the joy that grandchildren can bring to their grandparents. Take this recent comment beneath my column, from a grandfather: “I have largely brought up my granddaughter from the age of less than a week. In my 80s, I am quite capable of changing nappies, feeding, wiping up enormous messes, dealing with all the tantrums and tears. It’s a privilege. It always was. At my age, I will never dance at her wedding, so I dance with her now.”

What’s working
The baby has – touch wood – been slowly on the mend, but we’ve been avoiding infection under doctor’s orders. This has meant ignoring another piece of guidance – the “no telly until 18 months” rule. I feel obscenely grateful to Sacha Kyle, the creator of Hushabye Lullabye: the televisual equivalent of temazepam.

What’s not
The baby has realised he was on to a good thing with all the night-time comfort and feeds during his illness, and is now point blank refusing to sleep in his crib. Send help.

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author of The Year of the Cat, which will be published in January 2023