BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
The Generation Game
By Jane Labous
Producer: Simon Coates
Jane Labous talks to grandparents in Dorset and Essex about their childcare duties
The grandmas at the library are the best singers for miles around. Every Wednesday, during the weekly rhyme time singing session, they sit squarely on the alphabet carpet in the children’s section, babies on laps, crooning their hearts out. When they engage their operatic voices for the high bits of Horsey Horsey, Don’t You Stop, the nursery rhyme soars above the bookshelves like some joyful morning hymn.
All over the country, older people are returning to parenthood. You find them on weekdays pushing toddlers in buggies, carrying tiny babies in slings, fitting small children onto swings at the park. They hang out in child-friendly cafés and soft-play areas, pulling baby wipes and snacks, dummies and toys from paraphernalia-filled nappy bags. They are experts at feeding the ducks. Of course, they’re responding to distress calls from us parents, their own daughters and sons. Nursery and childminder fees are sky high at the moment. Most families need two wages. My own salary would be entirely sucked away by nursery costs, if my mother didn’t look after my baby daughter every Wednesday and Thursday.
“I love it, I get to sing a lot!” exclaims 59 year-old Elizabeth from Branksome, Dorset, an enthusiastic participant in library rhyme time. Elizabeth has six children of her own, and over the years has provided childcare for all her grandkids. She still does ‘nanny time’ every Wednesday for her youngest grandchildren; eight year-old Chloe; six year-old Jude, and one year-old Zackary.
Elizabeth is a modern sort of granny – sixties child, feminist, young at heart. When we sing the verse of Wheels On The Bus that goes “The grannies on the bus go knit, knit, knit,” Elizabeth protests: “Do you see me knitting?!” But then she winks, and I notice that Zackary sports a woollen dinosaur hat and cosy knitted socks with the stamp of grandma all over them.
It’s hectic, Elizabeth admits. She has two grown-up sons still living at home, and a part-time job as an optician’s assistant. When I ask about holidays, the wrinkles at the edges of her eyes crinkle with amusement. “My husband’s retired now, and he’s just bought a camper van, so we could potentially go away on the days I don’t work, but this is a tie, so…” She shrugs. “The breaks are shorter.”
In rural Essex, Jenny is picking up seven year-old cousins Joel and Toby, and eleven year-old Georgie from the village primary school. Glancing around, it’s clear most of those waiting in the playground are grandparents. “It’s exhausting, they say it keeps you young, but sometimes I feel so old!” laughs Jenny, who’s in her sixties. She does the school run every week in term time, and looks after four year-old Theo on Wednesdays with grandad, Tony. “Sometimes Tony thinks it’s a bit too much,” Jenny adds, “but I look forward to it.” As for a break? “I don’t like to leave them in the lurch, so we don’t often go away.”
Joel and Toby race out of school, bags flying, ties askew, fingers stained with felt-tip pen, followed more sedately by Georgie, who flicks her hair with the surly smile of a nearly teenager. “Nanny, Nanny, I’m a vegetarian now, a strict vegetarian!” she proclaims. Her little brothers gaggle around Jenny, pulling her by the hand. “Nanny, when we get home, can we go to the cinema?” “Nanny, can I have a cup of tea when we arrive?”
They straggle their way to the car like that, chattering and laughing, volleying questions. “I love going round my grandparents’ house after school,” grins Georgie. “Nothing’s better than their cooking!”
At home, the children run inside and Jenny scoops up satchels and backpacks, a forgotten scarf, a hair bobble and an abandoned Pokemon trinket. “I set the table with games and colouring before they arrive, so they’ll be occupied,” Jenny explains. “They have their tea here, then their mum picks them up at six o’clock.”
There’s something golden about these magical midweek days of concentrated fun; of duck feeding and cake baking, of singing and storytelling and, undoubtedly, sweets... For Nanna Margaret and Grandad Neil, who look after 14 month-old Aria twice a week at their home in Christchurch, Hampshire, it’s also about passing on traditions. “We teach Aria things we learnt when we were children,” confides Margaret. “The Brer Rabbit stories, round and round the garden and Incy Wincey spider.”
“It’s important to create lasting memories,” muses Neil with a grandfatherly chuckle, as he flies Aria in the air like a bird. “Like playing in the summerhouse and listening to music.” He pauses, reflecting for a moment. “Or sitting with Aria under a particular tree, listening to the tick of her great grandad’s watch.”