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, other grandparents benefit in other ways. Sonali Sharma, Joint Director, Communications at HelpAge India, a New Delhi-headquartered NGO for the elderly, found that when grandparents care for grandchildren, it wins them more respect and concern from their own children. What’s more, the grandchild’s company helps alleviate the grandparent’s loneliness.

In the rural context, the presence of grandparents meant the grandchild benefited healthwise too, said Sonali. “HelpAge has a monthly ration programme (of items such as rice, soap, oil, detergent, etc.) and income generation schemes (where we provide seed money) for the needy among the elderly. These benefits always trickle down the family chain, to the grandchild. That, in turn, means the earning members of the family treat the aged person with more respect.”

But when do grandparent and grandchild bond the most? “When the grandparent is in a ‘supervisory’ or ‘supportive’ role with respect to the grandchild,” says Dr. Datta. “Unfortunately, today, grandparents are expected to take on the parents’ role. Worse, modern parents expect their parents to listen to them when it comes to childcare. So there is a sense that they are not doing things the ‘right’ way. Also there are more expectations and pressures on the grandparents — take the child to pre/play school, pick him or her up, take her to the parent-prescribed activity and so on.”

While grandparents now take on greater responsibilities, parents are not exactly doing much ‘parenting’. “Now, there is no emotional connect with the child. Naturally, the child, in turn, won’t go to the parent to discuss day-to-day problems. We need more responsible parenting from parents,” Dr. Datta said.

That grandparents provide unlimited love and support is something Manisha knows well. Her daughter, now seven, lives with her in Delhi. “My daughter finally came to stay with me when she was four. My parents stayed till she got used to being with me, to school and day care in Delhi. Even now, whenever she is sick, they are here. And she spends her holidays with them in Uttarakhand. I personally believe that children should grow naturally in the care of their parents, mainly because grandparents are simply too lenient. At the same time, my parents’ love and patience are immense,” she added.

Family day care system

A decade or so ago, there was the family day care (FDC) system of child care in the Mumbai suburbs. This was a ‘group care’ system, conducted by housewives. They would volunteer to care for children of different age groups — from infants to toddlers, pre-schoolers to school children. They had flexible timings (unlike the set times offered by day care centres) and offered a safe, secure and home-like environment for their wards. Since it was a neighbourhood-based system, it was easily accessible to the working women in the area.

The carers were mostly middle-aged middle-class women who contributed to their family income through this work. The advantage was that parents could make arrangements with the providers, as per their work schedules. At times, this meant that the carer worked 12 to 14 hours. But since they were not specially trained, the children received no mental or physical stimulation. Dr. Datta noted, in a paper titled “Childcare in India: Emerging issues and challenges for the 21st century,” that this system is now being phased out by day care centres.

From housewives to a Harvard grad

Today, it is not a housewife but a Harvard Business School (HBS) graduate who is willing to provide childcare services in a stimulating, secure and ‘on-site’ environment. The Harvard grad is Sridevi Raghavan. And the business plan she submitted and subsequently received private equity funding for (while at HBS), led to her setting up Chennai-based start-up Amelio Child Care (ACC), where Sridevi is CEO and her husband Raghavan Jawahar is Director. The name itself is taken from “ameliorate”, meaning “to make better” the situation of working mothers. The company is active in seven centres across Chennai at locations ranging from residential townships to technology parks/company premises.

“In a township, residents send their children to our centres and, in a company office, employees receive the same benefit,” Sridevi said. At Amelio, six-month-olds to eight-year-olds are cared for. While infants are in the day care section, the older children follow a pre-school and after-school system. “We adhere to U.S.-based National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) standards with our curriculum. The foundation of our programme is based on community involvement, so we encourage parents to interact with the children. So for the child there is a sense of connection between home and school.” ACC will soon set up centres in other cities.

* names changed

For advice/tips on dealing with childcare and other issues, grandparents can check http://www.grandparentsplus.org.uk/grandparents-helping-childcare