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Using vacation days and flex time, working boomers help out by providing child care for their adult children’s kiddies

Every Thursday, Lori Bitter and her husband pick up their six-year-old grandson after school in a Bay Area suburb, take him to his theater class and then home for dinner, often with a prepared casserole for the family. On Earth Day last month, they attended a school program and joined an audience filled with other grandparents, many also sitting in for working parents.

Across the country in a Long Island suburb, Kathy O’Neill came out of retirement to watch her four-year-old granddaughter full time after the babysitter broke her leg. Next fall, when her school teacher daughter-in-law ends maternity leave, O’Neill will also care for the baby boy.

Bitter and O’Neill are among the legions of grandmothers—and some grandfathers too—who provide childcare, some full-time, others a few days or afternoons weekly, and others as backup. Despite the demands on their time and energy, many willingly volunteer because often there’s no alternative. Some daughters are single moms; others are working double shifts or going to school at night. Some work demanding jobs, on call 24/7, with last-minute meetings and travel. Day care is exorbitant and ends at 6 p.m. Grandma, with years of work, has flexibility and accumulated vacation and sick days. So when the nanny quits, or soccer season starts or a sick child can’t go to daycare, who you gonna call? Grandma!

Grandparents are not sitting home with time on their hands. Of the 2.7 million grandparents who provide care giving, more than half are working. And watching grandkids costs money. Bitter, author of The Grandparent Economy, found that grandparents spend an average of $2,000 yearly on out-of-pocket expenses, and many more than that.

It’s not uncommon for grandma to pay for diapers or formula for a struggling family. Other well-off families pay for “extras” like summer camp, money they might have used for their own adventures, or more important, savings. Many 50- and 60-something working women are neglecting their retirement funds and instead spending on grandchildren’s needs, Bitter says.

Several years ago, Syracuse University sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer attended a conference and was surprised to find that the hot topic among her 60-something colleagues was child care. They all loved their grandchildren but sometimes felt pressured to pitch in even when it conflicted with their work.
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