Every day for about three hours, Sally Wilson forgets she is a grandmother and slips back into her teaching routine while watching as many as six children.
Since retiring as director of special education in Garrett County, Wilson, 69, has become the primary source of day care for her grandchildren, who range in age from 8 years to 15 months. Although the children’s mother and father both work, they cannot afford to pay for child care.
“I am like a second mom to them,” said Wilson, who lives in the Allegany County community of McCoole. “The kids really respond to me and are accustomed to coming here.”
Wilson is among growing numbers of parents caring for their children’s children. Experts have noticed and encouraged the trend as both the need for and the expense of day care grows.
While there is ample data on children who live full-time with their grandparents, child advocate groups say it is impossible to estimate the number of part-time arrangements. Grandparents can range widely in age — from about 30 on up — rendering census data almost meaningless. And the middle generation’s need for childcare is difficult to survey, given that it can vary from month to month or even day to day.
“Parents always want the best for the child and usually have to work more to pay for those things their kids want,” said
Valarie Brown, team leader for Casey Family Services, a non- profit child welfare agency in Baltimore. “Therefore, parents have to rely more on family resources, if they are available.”
Families spend almost 20 percent of their median income on child care, according to a study by the Maryland Committee for Children. The study found the average weekly cost, per child, of full-time care is $87.54 in home-based programs and $108.49 in daycare centers.
“Many low-income families just can’t afford the cost of child care,” said Lori Rogovin, director of public policy for the committee, a non-profit organization in Baltimore that focuses on child care issues. “Therefore, more and more kids are going into informal care, which is usually provided by relatives such as grandparents.”
Rogovin also noted that parents may feel more comfortable leaving their kids with grandparents.
“It is hard to make the decision to put a kid in child care,” she said. “But there is a higher trust level with relatives, so it makes sense to put the care in their hands.”
Brown, however, warned that there are potential problems in such arrangements.
“There are times when there is a conflict between the grandparent and parent on how to raise a child,” she said. “Also, for many grandparents, medical issues present a major problem.”
Older adults may lack the stamina for full-time child care, Brown said.
Wilson concurred. She has had surgery to remove cancer in her stomach and breast, and said the operations had indeed slowed her down. She must be cautious of what she does with the children.
“It has definitely cut down on my ability to care for them,” she said. “At times I feel like I put the kids in jeopardy because I can’t do a lot.”
But the children were “medicine” during her recovery, she said. She looked forward to their arrival, and said they recognized that she needed help doing certain things.
Wilson admits there are times when she is glad to see her grandchildren leave for the day, but knows she will always be a phone call away if she is needed. “How can you ever refuse your kids and your grandkids’ request for help?” she asked with a laugh. -30-