Grandma is providing the family’s childcare. What can be better than that, right? You imagine that a built-in babysitter who knows and loves your children as much as you is the best way to go. And what’s better is, she’s free! But wait a minute. Is this “free” babysitting service really free? No, not really. Just as there are many positive reasons for having your mother-in-law babysit your children, there are just as many (or more) reasons why it can create bigger problems—for you, your in-law, your marriage, and your children. Here are some things to think about before you decide grandma is the perfect person to babysit your children while you are at work.
- Blurring of relationship roles – This is a two-fold problem. First you have the dual role of mother-in-law and caregiver that affects you, your spouse, and your in-law, and then you have the dual role of grandma and caregiver, which will affect your children.
Dual role of mother-in-law and caregiver – She is your mother-in-law, which can bring its own set of issues into the family dynamics. Even if you get along with each other most of the time how do you transition from her being your elder, your in-law, maybe if you’re lucky, your friend to now she’s your employee?
As a mother-in-law she may be clear (and comfortable) with how this role works with you as her daughter-in-law, but what happens when this role shifts into caregiver? What are the rules? How does it swing back and forth from mother-in-law to employee when the situation arises? What happens if, as her employer, you tell her she is doing something that is not acceptable? How does she separate one role from the other? How do you?
Dual role of grandma and caregiver – What about the children? How do they understand the different roles? Yesterday I was playing with her; today she is telling me I’m not allowed to do what I’ve done with her a hundred times at her house. To children this dual role can be very confusing. Can you really expect them to be able to know and understand these shifts in roles from one day to the next?
Further, this situation can dramatically affect the more important relationship between grandparent and grandchild. Grandchildren should feel special and without judgment with their grandparents. And even though there are rules at grandma’s house, these rules may be quite different (and more relaxed) than at their own home. Do you want to have your children see their grandparents as their disciplinarian or caregiver instead of as their grandparent?
- Power struggles – Although you are not paying your in-law to watch your children in reality she is working for you. You want things to be a certain way when it comes to your children. You have your ideas about discipline, nutrition, nap times, a well thought-out schedule vs. a laidback one, and so on. However, your caregiver is not just anyone; she is your mother-in-law—your children’s grandmother, who cannot turn off her role of grandmother. Yes you want your rules to trump her desires, but it is not as easy as that. Challenging her or criticizing her choices with the kids may get the initial results you want, but it may have a lasting impact on your relationship with her as your mother-in-law. Not to mention the confusing and possibly negative affects this has on your children.
- Resentments – At some point you will have to tell your mother-in-law that you need her to do or not do something—that the way she is doing whatever it is she is doing is not the way you want her to do it. You have that right as the child or children’s parent, right? Yes, you do, but your “employee” is also your in-law and your children’s grandparent. This is a very delicate conversation and can easily get out of hand. Such a conversation will likely disrupt the current relational dynamic between you and your in-law, creating resentment on both sides
Your mother-in-law will likely resent the fact that you are judging her caretaking ability, especially since she sees herself as experienced and quite capable in this arena. You, on the other hand, will resent the fact that you have been put in a position to bring it up with her. And depending on how the conversation between the two of you goes, you both may walk away with even more resentment than you started. So…how do you handle the next family get-together?
- Control & Compensation – When you pay for childcare you have certain expectations, and if those expectations are not met you can switch daycare facilities or fire the babysitter or nanny and hire a new one. However, when your childcare person is your mother-in-law how do you fire her? Not only that, how do you fire someone you aren’t even paying? The absence of money can make it more difficult for your in-law to feel like your employee. It can also make both the parents and the in-law more vulnerable to such problems as power struggles and resentments.
- Conflicts – Since you are comfortable enough with your mother-in-law to ask her to be your main childcare person it is safe to assume that there is already a close relationship between the two of you. It also means that due to this relationship your mother-in-law may feel comfortable challenging your parental philosophies, or simply ignoring them altogether. It is impossible to completely separate the two roles of family member and caregiver, which will cause feelings from both sides and interfere in the overall familial dynamic. Along with this, if your mother-in-law is the main caregiver and all of you are together as a family, it is easy for her to “forget” she is not on duty. She may automatically step into the parental role, and this can do nothing but create friction between you and her.
So what can you do to avoid these disastrous circumstances and more importantly avoid creating bigger, more devastating problems in the family. Here are some things to consider:
- Ideally it would be better to let grandma remain just that—grandma. Let her help you financially, if necessary, so that you can hire a nonfamily member to watch your children. If this is not really an option then ask her to watch the children no more than two days a week, giving her specific times so that she knows when she is needed and when her time becomes her own again.
Also, instead of viewing her as your childcare person on these days, view this time as your children spending the day with grandma. What they do with grandma is between them and likely what they do together during their normal “grandma-grandchild” time.
- Let your mother-in-law decide what is easiest or best for her as to where she watches the children—your house or hers. She may prefer her own, especially when the children are young, so that she can do things around her house while they nap. Or, she may prefer your house because the children have their toys there and are more comfortable in their own surroundings. Regardless, with it being free daycare service, it should be her choice.
- When asking your mother-in-law to babysit the children on a regular basis, it is important that you and your spouse as well as your in-law sit down and discuss the expectations—yours and hers. Does she see this as one-on-one time with her grandchildren and not really providing “childcare?” Do you see it this way too, or do you see it differently? How will discipline be handled; what is acceptable discipline, what is not. Who provides the food, diapers, toys, etc? Are there certain routines or schedules that must be followed or foods that can or cannot be eaten? What are the specific hours required? All these expectations (and more) need to be discussed and agreed upon before any childcare service begins, if it begins. One or both sides may decide they do not want to move forward. If this happens do not see this as a personal slight, it may be that either one or both parties value the family relationship and wants it to remain intact.
- Make sure the lines of communication are open on both sides. Both you and your mother-law should feel that at any time you are able to sit down with the other and talk about a concern or issue that has come up. Find a way to do it that does not place judgment on the other person. Look for solutions to the problem, not finding fault. This is not a time to blame the other, but instead, a time to look to the other person for help in finding answers. It is about working together as a team.
Deanna Brann, Ph.D. has over 30 years of experience in the mental health field as a clinical psychotherapist specializing in communication skills, family and interpersonal relationships, and conflict resolution. After running her own private practice for more than 20 years, she spent time later in her career providing business consultation to other private practice professionals in the health care and legal fields. As both a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, her own personal experiences led her to research the subject. Her first book, Reluctantly Related, began the discussion of examining and bettering the MIL/DIL relationship and is followed by her newest book, Reluctantly Related Revisited. Brann holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology, a Master of Science degree in Clinical Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Psychobiological Anthropology.