A labour of love


Photo: K. Ananthan
The HinduPhoto: K. Ananthan


Urban working parents across India leave their children in the care of grandparents. The author takes a look at this arrangement.

Veena Sharath*, a retired banker, and her husband, Sharath Kumar*, a former college professor, do not have the time to ponder over the fact that they have become proxy parents. They look after their son’s son, and have done so from the time the boy was born. First their son, a doctor, went abroad for his higher studies. Then his wife followed suit. Now, the four-year-old knows his parents only by their voices, when they call every week. For him, his grandparents are his actual parents.

Last year, Veena (in her early 60s) was looking for a play school close to their home. She found the process of getting the little boy ready, packing him a snack, and bringing him back from school stressful and tiring. Worse, Sharath (in his mid-70s), fell ill and needed surgery. Looking after her husband and her grandson was a challenge. “It was tough to manage,” Veena said. “But he is no trouble at all, he never makes a fuss.”

Innumerable couples grapple with the issue of childcare, every day, in every part of the world. Often, concern for the child’s welfare tends to be weighed against economic and other considerations. In May 2013, the U.K.-based NGOs Grandparents Plus and Age UK reported that grandparents in the U.K. save working parents £7.3 billion by taking on unpaid child care duties. The NGOs found “one in four working families (in the U.K.) depends on grandparents for childcare”. Statistics are hard to come by in the Indian context, but here too, grandparents end up saving parents a lot of money. For one thing, apart from trust and training issues, hiring a nanny/maid is expensive. And then, in the cities, day care charges can range from Rs.4,000 to Rs.10,000 a month or more. The younger the child, the costlier the ‘care’.

Dr. Vrinda Datta, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, points out that the bigger problem is that day care centres continue to be unmonitored and unregulated. In September 2013, the Ministry of Women and Child Development proposed a national policy for early childhood care and education (ECCE) to monitor quality at day care centres in urban and rural areas. But the policy will take months to be put into practice. According to Dr. Datta, India lags way behind the Western world in childcare services. “In the U.S., there is monitoring, licensing, and regular visits (in childcare centres) by the authorities concerned. There are regulatory standards to be met. In India, there is no licensing, no health and safety checks. No one cares if centres are run on the sixth floor, without grills or other safety measures in place. So, where is the issue of ‘quality’ day care? Parents choose day care centres based on location, easy access and cost. Naturally, most would rather leave their children with grandparents.”

Manisha R., a working mother in New Delhi, believes it is unfair to judge parents who leave their children in the care of grandparents. Because, sometimes, situations arise that require sacrifices. She and her husband were business students in the U.K. when she became pregnant. “It was an unplanned pregnancy,” she said. Her mother was there to help when their daughter was born. But once back in India, financial constraints forced the young couple to look for well-paying jobs. This involved relocating to another city. Manisha and her husband had two choices while at work: leave their baby in a day care facility in an unknown city or leave her with Manisha’s parents at her home town in Uttarakhand. “We chose to leave her with my folks. My daughter was just over one year. I went to see her as soon as I could (three months into her new job), and she called me didi (big sister in Hindi),” Manisha said.

According to Dr. Datta, children benefit the most — in terms of imbibing social skills, values and also growth and emotional development — from being with grandparents as compared with the care provided by maids/nannies, day care centres or even stay-at-home moms. “At home, a mother’s attention/time is divided between the needs of her children and those of her home. A grandparent, on the other hand, has unlimited time and patience for the grandchild.”

Kiran Shenoy, a grandmother of two, can vouch for that. She and her husband Ashok shuttle between Bangalore and Philadelphia every couple of months. “When we are in the U.S., we request that our son’s children come stay with us, without their parents,” she said. Then we can be indulgent grandparents for a short time. The children, secure in the knowledge that we will not judge them, are comfortable talking to us about things that they cannot with their own parents.”

Just as Kiran and Ashok enjoy being indulgent confidantes to their grandchildren,

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