The elderly lady pushing the double buggy up the steep hill stopped to catch her breath and mop her sweaty brow. It was a hot, late spring day on the Rock and as I walked past her with my two young sons (mercifully no longer needing pushchairs) she smiled faintly and said “no estoy ya para estos trotes.” She was no longer up to this, she sighed. I couldn’t help but sympathise – I certainly couldn’t see myself as a pensioner pushing toddlers in buggies up one of Gibraltar’s steep hills on a hot day – or in fact on any day.
When I mentioned the old lady with the double buggy on the hill to my Mum – also a pensioner – she rolled her eyes and said “you wouldn’t believe the number of grandparents in Gibraltar who are struggling with the demands of looking after their young grandchildren full-time. Some are feeding the children’s parents when they come home from work too! They complain of being exhausted and trapped by the daily responsibility of it all.”
I stopped to think how many of my Gibraltarian friends had relied on their parents and in-laws to help out with childcare while they went back to work and, sure enough, the evidence was everywhere. I also remembered conversations among friends about the frequent clash of parenting styles between an older generation of grandparents and their own. Different generational styles on anything from discipline to feeding “it’s really hard to tell my child to stop doing something that I disapprove of when I find that Granny has been allowing her to do so every day while in her care,” bemoaned one. “What can I do, I rely on them for free childcare?”
There lies the rub – grandparents are cheaper than childcare and like millions of parents the world over, Gibraltarian Mums and Dads are left with little choice other than to rely on family to look after their children while they go to work. In the UK 1 in 3 families rely on grandparents’ care, rising to 1 in 2 for those just returning from maternity leave – my own unscientific poll suggests the figures are similar in Gibraltar. Those most likely to do so are also the less well paid: single parents, shift workers, anyone working unsociable or unpredictable hours. They don’t fit the inflexible 8-6 timetable of nurseries. There are those who couldn’t afford to work if childcare wasn’t free.
Except it’s not really free, is it? There’s always a price to be paid somewhere; how many Gibraltarian parents worry that their right to work might have been achieved at someone else’s expense? Generations of older women, many of whom never worked in order to raise a family are now making sacrifices at pensionable age so that their daughters can pursue career opportunities they never had.
Through the many years that Gibraltar suffered from an acute housing shortage, it was not uncommon for young, married couples to have no option but to begin married life living with one set of parents or in-laws (usually in a double bedroom, offered for the newlyweds to have a roof over their heads.) Yes, in those days the grandparents were under the same roof to care for new-borns when they arrived, but it’s easy to forget – and underestimate – the impact that several generations forced to live under one roof had on the family dynamic and social cohesion. The home-ownership revolution of the early 90s broke the back of Gibraltar’s housing problem but it also led to an increasing number of couples needing to hold down two jobs in order to pay a mortgage. With that came the ever-growing need for affordable childcare.
Even grandparents who are delighted to be pushing a pram again face a potentially expensive choice between that and being worn out by the responsibility and exhaustion of spending long hours caring for young children. Despite this it’s hard to ignore the considerable benefits for children (not just for working parents) of being looked after by their grandparents: a 2012 study by Essex University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research found children were more emotionally secure and often “significantly ahead” at the age of three due to the amount of one-to-one time they spent with a loving adult.
Five years ago, in a most unlikely of generational revolts, babysitter grandparents in Spain were urged by trade unions to “down tools” for a day (as part of a general strike to bring the country to a halt.) It struck at one of the key elements of Spanish society – much like Gibraltar’s in this case – where grandparents provide the childcare that working parents cannot give and the state does not offer. A lack of good, state-funded childcare in Gibraltar is the subject of frequent, heated debate across Gibraltar’s social media forums as private provision is simply not affordable for many.
The grandmother mopping her brow halfway up the hill waved a cheery goodbye as she continued her journey pushing the double-buggy and chuckled, “I can’t wait for the day when my grandchildren start school so I can go part-time!”