Grandparenthood in Modern Ireland

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In this study, 58 grandparents (44 grandmothers and 14 grandfathers) were interviewed using qualitative interview techniques. The objective of the study was to obtain the views of grandparents from their own perspective.

A questionnaire was also used to obtain the demographic details of the grandparents.

The grandparents ranged in age from 40 and 92. Half of the sample was widowed and the majority had not gone further educationally than their Primary Certificate. Almost one-third of grandparents have a disability.

These grandparents have, on average, 10 grandchildren, which is somewhat larger than those in a previous Irish study and considerably more than grandparents in the UK and the US. Additionally, over one-quarter of these grandparents have great-grandchildren which is slightly less than great-grandparents in the US.

Most grandparents included in the study live within 10 miles of their grandchildren and, on average, saw most of them at least once a week. A small percentage have their grandchild living with them or live in a granny flat owned by one of their children. One-third of the grandparents have some grandchildren who live abroad.

On recounting their feelings on becoming a grandparent, the most prevalent response was delight. However, other responses were pleased, neutral, feeling old and shock/horror. The grandparents who claimed they experienced shock and horror had grandchildren born out of wedlock and some to teenage parents.

For the majority of grandparents, even those who reported initial shock and horror at becoming a grandparent reported that being a grandparent was a source of great joy to them. Many reported that their first grandchild was special and that they have a particular bond with that child.

Some grandmothers reported that their relationships with their daughters' families was stronger than with their sons'. However, this was not a universal experience of Irish grandparents, compared to findings in the US.

Six different kinds of caring for grandchildren were identified, from in-house parent absent to occasional care. The most prevalent type of caregiving identified in this study was done in blocks of time when parents are on holiday or during the grandchildren's school holidays. Grandmothers were more likely to care for their grandchildren and grandfathers usually did so in the company of their spouses. Some grandparents who engage in considerable caregiving reported that this activity can be tiring.

Grandparents also engaged in active pursuits and passive activities with their grandchildren. It appears that as grandchildren mature, grandfathers become more involved with them and engage in activities with them. Most grandparents receive visits from their grandchildren but bi-directional and visits to grandchildren is less prevalent. This pattern of visiting was also found in a previous Irish study.

Some grandparents in this study are or have been denied access to their grandchildren, usually after separation or divorce. This was, and for some, continues to be a very painful experience for grandparents, especially when milestone events such as First Communion and Confirmation take place in their absence. Additionally, these grandparents experience the courts and the adversarial nature of custody and access battles as painful and inappropriate.

Over a quarter of grandparents reported that they were loath to interfere in their children's lives, particularly in relation to childrearing, even if they considered their children's parenting style contrary to their own. Additionally, some grandparents who have grandchildren in families in which both parents work reported that these grandchildren wielded the power in the family. These findings may be indicative of a shift in the balance of power in the Irish family over the last 100 years.

When grandparents were asked to formulate wishes and concerns for their grandchildren's future, they wished for stable family backgrounds for them. This wish is not surprising given the growing rate of marital breakdown and the prevalence of single and teenage parenthood. The majority of grandparents worried about the growing problem of drug and alcohol abuse in Irish society. Grandparents from a diverse set of circumstances had other wishes and concerns. They mostly revolved around a more equitable system of resolving custody and access problems in relationship breakdown. Grandparents who have non-legal custody of their grandchildren worry that they will be removed from them and placed in less favourable circumstances (e.g., returned to an abusive or neglectful parent).

When asked to formulate social policies which would be beneficial for grandparents, grandchildren or both, these grandparents considered that as a group they need recognition as a resource within family life in Ireland. They consider that this fact is currently ignored in Irish society. They have much to offer and believe their talents are under-utilised.

A good education for their grandchildren was the social policy mentioned most frequently. Additionally, children should be kept out of harm's (and drug's) way by having sports and leisure activities after school and in the school holidays.

The housing crisis and its effects on three-generation families was of concern for some grandparents, especially when they saw that in order to own a house, their children would have to move far away. They believed the government should give some attention to providing money for granny flats and house extensions where the different generations within a family might be able to live separately but also together.

Grandparents who are denied contact with their grandchildren would like to see some less formal system such as mediation introduced. Furthermore, they consider that counselling is necessary to assuage the pain and hurt created by loss of contact. Grandparents suggested that in all custody and access issues the best interests of the child should be paramount.

Some grandparents, especially those in difficult circumstances were unable to find out exactly what their rights are relative to access, custody and social welfare entitlements. Some were frightened to ask about their social welfare entitlements in case those they currently have are removed or diminished. Others reported lack of respect from State employees, especially social workers and social welfare employees.

Grandparents who live in rural areas have difficulty with transportation and would like to see these matters redressed by creative transport initiatives.

Grandparents who are members of the Travelling community would like their views to be sought when sites were being designed and built. They consider that accommodating Travellers from many diverse and sometimes hostile groups on thesame site is inappropriate. They also wanted discrimination to cease and for them to have same rights to live and work as every other citizen.

There are many different kinds of grandparents in Ireland today. This study identified five different categories of grandparents many of which could be helped to enjoy the experience of grandparenthood more fully by interventions from the State or voluntary organisations. These categories are non-involved, custodial, proscribed and conscientious grandparents. A further category identified and named by some of the grandparents in this study are 'supergrans', who have all the qualities of conscientious grandparents but additionally engage in an egalitarian, reciprocally supportive and fun-loving relationship with their grandchildren.

More research, especially in relation to the various categories of grandparents discovered in this study, needs to be undertaken. This could verify these tentative first steps in understanding what the lives, experiences, needs and concerns of grandparents are in a rapidly changing Ireland.

Last modified:06/11/2008

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