As a grandparent, taking a primary role in raising grandchildren was probably never on your agenda. Maybe you were enjoying the thought of retiring and taking it easy in your golden years. But because you are deeply committed to your grandchildren, you find yourself as a primary caregiver at a later point in life. And at the same time, you also find that this family responsibility you are stepping up to puts you in tension with your work life. You are not alone!

You want to do your best at home and at work. Taking care of your grandchildren is a significant part of your life, and that includes both physical care and financial care. Surely you’ve faced the questions: Do I put in more time at work to pursue career advancement? Do I drop what I’m doing and head home to be with the family, even if that creates a financial squeeze? Should I begin looking for a more family-friendly job?

A Hard Look at Priorities

Picture a tent, which is held up by guy wires. One rope pulls one way to a stake in the ground, while another pulls the other way. Without just the right amount of tension, the roof of the tent can’t do its job. Similarly, the tension that grandparents can feel between work and home can be productive. If struggles cause a critical review of priorities, that’s a healthy exercise for grandparents. Often, it is simply a question of priorities.

Many people become very adept at deciding between work projects that are important as opposed to those that are simply urgent. Unfortunately, they don’t often apply the same principles when it comes to family. If you were asked, “Which is more important—this project at work, or your relationship with your granddaughter?” your answer would be easy. But life is rarely that cut-and-dried. We’re under pressure to perform regardless of the hours or number of business trips it takes to keep up. When we do our jobs well, there are fairly quick and tangible rewards: bonuses, raises, new titles, congratulatory memos.

In comparison, the rewards of grandparenting are much less immediate and obvious. Who praises you for going to soccer games? Did you get a bonus last winter for staying up with your grandson when he had the flu? Does your teenage granddaughter give you a big “Thank you” hug for spending an hour with her on geometry or taking her shopping for something she needs? No matter how important something may be, it’s difficult to invest yourself in it when you aren’t likely to see a “pay off” for months, or years, or not at all—especially when there are pressing deadlines today at work.

A New Perspective

One key to resolving this tension is integration. Instead of seeing two completely different tracks, try viewing your career and your family as separate rails which make up one set of tracks. We would do anything to see our grandchildren succeed in life. This is why we have accepted the tension of taking on the role of primary caregiver while at the same time remaining in the workforce. No matter how difficult it is today, we know that our grandchildren are better off. And even if they don’t understand that today, someday they will see what we sacrificed to give them something better.

Making Daily Choices

What actions can you take? Look over your work goals for the next few years. Can you realistically accomplish all of them? Is your family budget based on realistic needs, or on some culture-driven idea about earning power, upward mobility, or keeping up social appearances? Can you afford to make some changes in your work schedule for the sake of your family? Short of making drastic changes, there are daily steps grandparents can take to balance work and family:

∙Discuss your priorities with your boss. Be candid with him or her about times when you need to flex your schedule for family events. Make it clear that you are dedicated to doing your best at work, but that family is also very important to you. Suggest your own win-win solutions or ask for his ideas to help reach a workable balance.

∙If it’s feasible in your situation, learn to turn down or delay extra projects that you can’t handle without compromising your family’s needs.

∙Proactively strengthen your relationship with other significant adults in your grandchildren’s lives. You’ll be better prepared to handle the stresses of work confidently and as a team.

∙Create regular rituals to connect with your grandkids—phone calls from the office, special “welcome home” time when you walk in the door, or other weekly events that keep you in touch.

∙Block out time for your own rejuvenation, whether you use the time to exercise, take a walk, or wind down a little before going home.  

A Grandparent-Friendly Workplace

The workplace doesn’t have to be an enemy of good grandparents. A growing number of employers are acknowledging the importance of family. John A. Krol, president and CEO of DuPont, said, “Work/life programs are a powerful tool to motivate people and encourage commitment to achieving business objectives…. When a company acts on this belief by responding to employees’ concerns, it is not only good for our people but it’s good for business as well.” Organizations are finding out that family-friendly benefits and training provide significant benefits, such as greater company loyalty, reduced absenteeism, increased retention, and recruiting advantages.

What does “family-friendly” mean? Here are some more ideas:

∙Communication, with emphasis on open dialogue to find out the employees’ needs and concerns.

∙Flexible scheduling. Employees are given more control over when and where they get the job done. Flex time options make for happier workers and thus better, more dedicated workers.

∙Support from the top. The leaders of a company need to give vocal and visible support to family-friendly issues.

∙Reward workers for performance, not clock time.

∙Child care options that are appealing and user-friendly for any family situation.

∙Sensitivity to family emergencies, school events, etc.  

Your company may already have lots of policies that allow or encourage you to be a good grandparent, or they may be open to some positive changes. Or, it may take some time. The important thing is that we start adjusting our thinking to recognize the importance of a grandparent’s role even when she’s at work.