Granny nannies who love their jobs
Call it good timing. Seven years ago, Silver Spring resident Margaret McDermott was expecting her first grandchild. At the same time, her longtime job as an event planner fizzled out.
When she realized she could spend her empty days with her baby grandson, McDermott jumped at the chance, much to her surprise.
“I thought, ‘I’ll just try it for a day,’ and I was hooked,” said McDermott, now 70 and taking care of her two grandchildren, ages 7 and 3, three days a week, down from five.
“It really gives me purpose. I’ve been offered job opportunities, but I say, ‘I have the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve never been paid so much.’ I am paid in love.”
In recent years, more and more grandparents are filling in for gaps in childcare, some helping out part-time, some full-time.
In fact, more than 2.7 million grandparents are live-in, primary caregivers to their grandchildren. That’s a 12% increase from 2000, according to Pew Research Center, which noted “a precipitous rise” after the 2007-8 financial crisis.
“Grannies stepping in to help with the grandkids is becoming as American as taking selfies,” wrote Lesley Stahl in her 2016 book Becoming Grandma.
“You see it in the projects as well as the suburbs, with single working moms in Pittsburgh who can’t afford a nanny and with well-to-do working couples on Park Avenue who don’t trust a nanny.”
Reasons to help
Circumstances are different for every family. “There are a number of reasons why a grandparent would step in to help,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a D.C.-based nonprofit that works to strengthen practices and policies to benefit children and older adults.
“Often the families are working more than one job,” Butts pointed out. “Often it’s because they can’t find childcare — or they can’t afford childcare.
“Often it’s a choice, too. The parents realize the value of the connection between grandparent and grandchild,” she said.
The ancient arrangement, in which grandparents mind the children while parents work, hasn’t changed much over the years.
“My mother was a granny nanny for all [four] of my children, and her mother was, too,” McDermott said. “But I always thought to myself, ‘I’ll never do that. I have a career.’”
Grandfathers change diapers, too
When some grandmothers hold their infant grandchildren, they experience the same surge of oxytocin, the brain’s “love enzyme,” that new mothers do. But men can feel a bond, too.
A 40-year career at the Library of Congress didn’t stand a chance when Eric Needle’s granddaughter was born. He decided to retire a few years early to take care of the baby, commuting daily from his Maryland home to Northern Virginia.
“I retired in 2015 on a Friday, and the following Monday I started taking care of her three days a week for 11,12 hours a day — the first time I started changing diapers in 30 years,” said Needle, now 71. “It was really wild. My hours were actually longer than when I was at work.”
Although Needle’s granddaughter is in elementary school now, she loves to look at photographs and movies of her years going to parks, museums and library story time, and watching planes take off from National Airport with Pop Pop.
“I was her favorite for a long time,” Needle said proudly. “Those were probably some of the best years of my life.”
Many grandparents report it’s easier the second time around because they don’t have to juggle work, kids, meals and cleanup and bedtime.
“It was a lot different than being a parent. At the end of the day, you gave the child back, and that was it,” Needle said.
In the hours between, though, Needle formed a bond that survives today. “I saw a lot of firsts. She said my name, Elmo, ‘outside,’ ‘light’…it was really amazing to see that development every day.”
Then came Covid
The arrival of Covid ended the arrangement. “The pandemic blew a hole in everything,” Needle said.
Like most of us, he was locked down in 2020. He didn’t see his granddaughter for three months. Then, when she started kindergarten on Zoom, he helped out again.
“I was coming over a couple days a week to make sure she stayed on task, which was almost impossible,” he recalled.
Even though grandparents were risking infection, some stepped up, even moving in to help parents who had to work full-time jobs from home.
“With Covid, as parents had to start to work remotely and children had to learn remotely, we know of many grandparents who uprooted themselves and moved in with their grandchildren to help manage that environment,” Butts said.
For some families, though, the pandemic was more than a temporary interruption. More than 250,000 American children lost one or both parents to Covid, according to a September 2022 report published in JAMA Pediatrics.
When grandparents or extended family take over, though, those children have a shot at healing, Butts said.
“Studies have proved that children who can’t be raised by their parents fare better when they’re raised by grandparents or other relatives, because they keep them close to their roots,” she said.
“They’re more likely to report feeling loved and staying connected with friends and community.”
Some nanny great-grandchildren
D.C. grandmother Cassandra Gentry, 71, is currently raising her “second set” of grandchildren. In 1992, Gentry became the primary caregiver of her first two grandchildren, age 6 months and two years, after her daughter was murdered by her partner.
Now Gentry is raising a great granddaughter, 12, and another grandson, 14, in an affordable apartment building in D.C. with 50 other grandparent-run households.
Called Plaza West, the city and a nonprofit developer opened the 223-unit building in Mount Vernon Square in 2018. (To read more about Plaza West, see the Beacon’s April 2019 article, “D.C. expands intergenerational housing,” at beaconnewspapers.com.)
“I tell the grandparents here that they are heroes. You’ve taken on the job of someone else, and you’re making the best of it,” said Gentry, who is one of Generations United’s team of Grand Voices, part of the National Center on Grandfamilies.
“This summer, out of 50 grandfamilies, we had seven graduates from high school,” Gentry said. “I’m just so proud of the grandparents for hanging in there and getting them through.”
Moving in with the family
Some grandparents, like Anjana Parikh, temporarily relocate to be a live-in granny nanny. When her daughter-in-law’s maternity leave expired, Parikh left her career in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and moved to Takoma Park, Maryland.
She lived there for six months, “made friends with all the babysitters,” she said, and re-learned how to care for a baby (“Everything came back.”).
She would walk her grandson (and later his siblings) to library story hour, the coffee shop, and the Metro station to meet their mother after work.
In deciding to move, Parikh concluded, “It’s more valuable to spend time with the grandkids than work. This was a great opportunity to bond with my grandbaby — and I can bond with my daughter-in-law, too.”
McDermott admits that sometimes her parenting style clashes with her that of her daughter. For instance, she insists that her grandchildren say grace before eating, and she doesn’t allow them to watch TV or iPads.
But at 6 p.m., their parents take over. “One of the most crucial parts of this arrangement is, once the mother is in the room, you’re not in charge,” McDermott said.
A bond that lasts
As for Parikh, although her grandchildren are 16, 14 and 12 years old, she and her husband, Nalin Parikh, still have a close relationship with them. They visit five times a year, go on beach vacations with the family, and even tuck the children in at night sometimes.
“That’s what we live for now — our grandkids,” Nalin Parikh said. “We want them to be good citizens and do good things for society. We don’t care if they become doctors, lawyers — we say, whatever you do, do your best and give back to society.”
Taking care of the grandchildren when they were small “brought us very close to them,” Parikh said.
“We have beautiful memories.”