I was amazed to read, the other day, that one in every three people over the age of 50 in the UK is a grandparent.
That’s an awful lot of grandparents – around 14 million, apparently. And with the cost of childcare being so high, many of them are looking after their grandchildren on a regular basis, saving their own children £6.8 billion – as a nation, that is.
Grandparents are an important part of our society. I’m not one myself just yet, but I certainly know their value. Years ago I relied on my own parents to care for my two young children once a week.
Not only did I benefit from knowing my children were well looked after, but my children benefited too. They have a lovely relationship with my parents and have very fond memories of the time they spent with them when they were little. My parents enjoyed helping out too, and being a regular part of my children’s lives.
Of course, grandparents have a reputation for being a little less strict with their grandchildren than parents tend to be. My own parents were certainly more relaxed with Rebecca and Jonathan than they were with me. I well remember the day Jonathan, then six, found a garlic crusher and a bowl of very ripe cherry tomatoes in my parents’ kitchen. When I arrived to pick him up after work, I found not only the kitchen worktop and tiles decorated with tomato seeds, but the wallpaper and cream roller blinds splattered too. There were even seeds on the ceiling! I was ready to tell him off, but my mum thought it was hilarious.
I’m not sure I’d have got away with that as a child.
I drew on my own children’s relationship with my parents to create the couple who represent grandparents in my debut novel, ‘Not Thomas’. Nanno and Dat are foster parents looking after Tomos, the child of a girl who was once in their care. Tomos thinks of Nanno and Dat as his ‘foster grandparents’ and he loves them to bits. He has a wonderful relationship with them. They chat about all sorts of things, sing songs and enjoy sharing games and books.
They’ve given him a happy and stable home for the first five years of his life, but when the novel begins, Tomos has been taken from their care and sent to live with his mum who’s hiding a drug addiction. She badly neglects Tomos, and he misses Nanno and Dat terribly and longs to return to their happy, safe home. The story is told through his eyes and in his voice, and attempts to describe what child neglect feels like.
Since early copies of ‘Not Thomas’ came out in June, I’ve met a number of grandparents who’ve experienced first-hand many of the issues my novel deals with, especially problems related to substance misuse. I’ve been saddened by some of the conversations I’ve had, but not surprised. I’ve worked as a teacher and I know there are terrible situations in some families.
Grandparents often come to the rescue and become the cornerstone when families go wrong. There are many whose grandchildren live with them, sometimes permanently, because of a problem their son or daughter has. This could be bereavement, disability, illness or imprisonment, but often it’s because they have a drug addiction.
In England and Wales, it’s estimated that up to 300,000 children have a parent with a serious drug problem. It’s not surprising then that I’m meeting grandparent after grandparent who’s worried sick about what’s happening to their grandchildren. They are often the adult who has to deal with the fall-out.
Fortunately, the input of grandparents can be a very positive influence on children’s lives, no matter how difficult the situation they find themselves in.
My novel, ‘Not Thomas’, is a sad story at times, but it’s also what one reviewer called ‘an affirmation of the human spirit’. That seems to be the perfect phrase to describe the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren too.
As my own children discovered, older people are often more relaxed, are great fun to be with and offer a different perspective on life. The University of Oxford recently conducted a study. It found that children who had a high level of involvement with their grandparents had fewer behavioural and emotional problems.