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The Granny Nanny Phenomenon

Michelle Obama's mother isn't the only grandparent who is giving up some independence to watch her grandchildren.

For Candace Turner, life in East Texas was anything but easy. She was living far from her grown children and having trouble making ends meet. The secretarial positions she could find barely paid above the minimum wage.

So when her daughter, Leah, asked if Turner, 58, would move back to Houston and help care for Leah’s three children, she packed her bags and moved into her daughter’s spare bedroom.

“I am used to being real independent and having my own space, and I miss that part,” Turner says. “But the rewards far, far, far outweigh any inconveniences.”

For Turner, the fulfillment comes from being such an important part of her grandchildren’s lives. There are the three she lives with—Ryan, 17, Dillon, 7, and Emily, 1—and her son’s 3-year-old daughter, Paige, who also spends her weekdays with “Meemaw.”

“It is not like I am just here to make sure if the house burns down I get them out real quick,” Turner says, emphasizing that she takes the job seriously. “I play with them all day. I like to spend time with them and teach them things. I love watching them grow up.”

Grandma steps in
The number of multigenerational households is growing. In 2000, 4.8 percent of households were multigenerational. In 2008, that number climbed to 5.3 percent, the first time the number of homes with more than one generation has increased in over a century. Turner is one of 6.2 million grandparents who have moved in with their adult children. The most famous member of this clique is probably Marian Robinson, mother of first lady Michelle Obama, who has moved from Chicago’s South Side into the White House, if only briefly, to help her granddaughters Malia and Sasha adjust to their new lives.

Not every grandparent is being offered the option of living in the White House. So what accounts for this sudden trend in family togetherness? The economy, for one thing. Child care costs increased at nearly twice the rate of inflation from 2006 to 2007, according to a study by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). U.S. Census figures show that the average household with an employed mother and children under age 5 paid $129 per week for child care.

“I talk with my friends, and all of us are pitching in,” says Lee Edwards Benning, author of The Granny-Nanny Handbook: A Guide for Parents & Grandparents Who Share Child Care (Cleveland Clinic Press, 2006). She helps care for her three grandchildren, ages 8, 6 and 4, four days a week while their parents work. “With [mothers] going back to work, with this recession and with child care being so costly, we just have to help out.”

But obligation isn’t the only motivating factor. “People are living longer and they’re also living more active and healthy lives,” says AARP family expert Amy Goyer. “So they are capable in their 60s and 70s — and some in their 80s — to help out with child care.”

History repeats itself
Families moving in together is far from a new phenomenon. In 1850, if you were a senior and had adult children, it was nearly guaranteed that you were living with them and not independently, says Steven Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center, who wrote a report chronicling the decline of multigenerational living from 1850 to 2000. That trend started to decline slowly through the latter half of the 19th century, Ruggles says, and nosedived starting in the 1940s.

“What brought about that change was a shift away from farming, as well as the rise of well-paid wage-labor jobs,” says Ruggles. “In the 19th century they were waiting around to inherit the farm. But when wage labor came in, the younger generation had a way to get out of these rigid, patriarchal families.”

Many historians point to Social Security as another reason for the rise of the nuclear family. The advent of Social Security during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society gave older Americans the economic means to remain independent long after they were no longer able to earn a living. Housing communities for retirees sprouted up in Florida, and “the myth of Sun City” and the idyllic retirement was born, says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an organization that promotes intergenerational activities and policies.

“People are coming back around full circle and realizing they are stronger when they are near family and friends,”says Butts. “We also know that people who move to seniors-only communities often get there and realize, ‘This is not that great.’ All they do is talk about pain, pills and passing. They want or need more purpose or vitality.”

And what can bring more vitality than a child? “We sometimes wonder what we would do if we didn’t have them to care for, because they really fill up your life,” says Benning. “We live by a calendar—but it’s not ours.”

Inherent challenges
Keeping the kids’ schedules straight—who has soccer practice, who has a play date after school, who has to be picked up—is a challenge, says Benning, who is in her 70s and lives in Ambler, Pa. And because she is in charge of breakfast and getting the kids out the door, she does miss sleeping in. But communication is the granny (or grampy) nanny’s biggest hurdle, she says.

“My daughter-in-law has her ideas as to how a child should be cared for, and I have mine,” says Benning. “As one grandmother who is in the same boat as I am said to me, ‘I listen to my daughter, but once the door is closed, I do it my way.’ It’s a solution, but as they get older they begin to tell tales and it doesn’t work. This is one of the things you run into.”

Benning has found the best solution for her family is to bow to her daughter-in-law over the minor differences. Anything major they discuss and try to arrive at a consensus. “If we can’t achieve that, I give in to her,” she says. “After all, I remind myself, they are her children, not mine.”

Privacy is Turner’s biggest challenge. Hers is a job with no quitting time. “It doesn’t matter if my son-in-law and daughter are here or not,” she says. “As long as I am in the house, the kids think I am the one that they have to come to when they want something. Even if I come to my room and close my door, they will stand at the door and go, ‘Meemaw, are you in there?’ The 1-year-old will knock on my door and go ‘Meemaw, Meemaw.’ You can’t resist that.”

Turner doesn’t always leave the house to get some time alone. “Sometimes I sit out in my car and paint my nails and listen to George Strait CDs,” she says.

Creative solutions
Multigenerational families are coming up with many creative solutions to the problem of wanting to live together while respecting everyone’s need for personal space. When Benning’s first grandchild was born, she and her husband decided to give their home to their son and daughter-in-law and move into an apartment they made in a barn that stood 150 feet from the main house on their property. Their extended family shares a homestead instead of a home, which helps create some boundaries.

In other situations, families are renovating or building to accommodate grandparents. Some families have even sold both their and the grandparents’ houses, pooled their resources and then purchased a larger home that can accommodate everyone’s needs. “Another way to do it is to build an attached apartment to the main house,” says Sharon Graham Niederhaus, author with John L. Graham of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living (M. Evans, 2007). “In another scenario, a mother was recruited to come to Oregon from the East Coast to help baby-sit her grandkids. They built a cottage in the backyard for her.”

When Chicke and Michael Fitzgerald’s nanny quit, they decided that instead of hiring another sitter, they would buy a house across the street from their Tampa, Fla., home for Michael’s mother, Julia. The children are now 8 and 10 years old, so the Fitzgeralds’ primary child care needs are in the evenings, on weekends and during the summer. With Julia Fitzgerald, 87, Chicke and Michael have reliable child care as well as the peace of mind that comes with having an older relative so close by.

“Grandma is the first line of child care,” says Chicke, 51. “She keeps them probably two nights a week on weekends, so that means Saturday and Sunday mornings we have our time alone. The kids love it. I think it’s what keeps Grandma young and healthy. And it takes some of the pressure off of our feeling like we have to have her over for dinner every night, or that she needs to be here.”

If a spare bedroom is the only option, there are other ways to ensure grandparent privacy and comfort. “If you don’t have space to give them their own sitting room, then make sure that grandparents have their favorite chair in the living room and a space to keep the things that are important to them,” says Goyer. “A grandparent may be giving up so much to come and live with the family, giving them a little bit of space can help them feel a little bit more normal in their life.”

But grandparents say what they have given up is trumped by what they have received. “Your grandkids love you because you love them back. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like,” Turner says. “I really can’t imagine anything that would be more rewarding than what I am doing, for any amount of money.”

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about families and health from Rockaway Beach, N.Y.

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