“I would say I was much closer to my grandparents than my parents when I was younger. In fact, my mum said my first words were Ye Ye (grandfather)—not just words that I threw together, but he was really the first person I had addressed with words.”
This anecdote from Valerie, a colleague whose paternal grandparents were her primary caregivers till around age 12, exemplifies ‘grandparenting’: being cared for, in some sustained and significant capacity, by one’s grandparents.
It is a relationship that should be instantly recognisable to most of us, if not one we can relate to directly. According to a 2005 survey, as many as 40% of children here are cared for by their grandparents from birth until they are three years old.
While grandparenting exists across a spectrum, it occurs most frequently in dual-income families where both parents work full-time jobs, which became more common in the ‘80s and ‘90s as more women entered the workforce.
For families unable to afford, or just plain disinclined, to hire a domestic worker or enroll their children in childcare, the natural alternative is to seek grandparents’ help with caregiving.
Most grandparents are involved in their grandchildren’s lives to some degree. However, grandparenting goes beyond a couple hours’ baby-sitting, done as a favour to parents desperate for some free time (or sleep), or visiting one’s grandparents for dinner every weekend. It is a labour of love that can entail anything from the attendant work of raising a child (cooking for them, cleaning up after them, and caring for them when they get sick) to shaping their values and encouraging their interests.
Poking my nose into my friends’ upbringings yielded a range of grandparenting experiences. My favourite story came from Jacob, who confessed that his grandfather had all but done his homework for him in Primary One. (Although he was not grandparented extensively throughout his childhood, his grandparents were his primary caregivers for a couple of years, which happened to coincide with his introduction to schoolwork.)
“I told him I needed help with my homework and he just … did it for me,” he said, shrugging.
At the other end of the spectrum is Valerie’s grandmother. If she had failed a test and tried to hide the result from her parents by throwing the exam script away, her grandmother would dig through the rubbish to recover the evidence. If she discovered any wrongdoing, she would go after Valerie with a cane in hand.
In Valerie’s words, “She’s intense.”
Not all grandparents were as involved. Some had more ‘passive’ relationships, where their grandparents took on caregiving tasks without playing any further role in their grandchildren’s lives. Cheryl, whose grandmother lived with them, would do most of the cooking and cleaning, and pick her up from school, but did not manage her schoolwork or influence her hobbies.
Similarly, Julian was looked after by his grandmother after school, but felt like they never really got to know each other, primarily due to the language barrier. His grandmother only spoke Cantonese, which he did not understand.
Interestingly, none of my friends felt their closeness to their grandparents affected their own relationship with their parents. Having grown up with this arrangement already in place, they never saw any reason to question it.
As Valerie put it, “I only noticed how unique our relationship was later in my life. In fact, I never questioned it when I was young. To me, it seemed completely normal to always have them around.”
If anything, it meant that growing up came with two sets of losses. It was not just their own parents they had less time for, as they graduated and began working; it meant growing apart from their grandparents, too, and losing that sense of closeness even as illness and old age cast a shadow over things. Our grandparents’ mortality is always less surprising to us than our parents’, because they have, for as long as we have known them, always been old.
To be sure, grandparenting is certainly not unique to Singapore or Southeast Asia. What is unique, however, is the extent to which it has been baked into government policy.
There are clear financial incentives to encourage close intergenerational ties. One of the most obvious of these is housing: families who purchase a resale flat within 4km of their parents receive up to $30,000 in assistance under the Singapore Housing Development Board’s Proximity Housing Grant.
Meanwhile, working mothers who engage their parent, grandparent, parent-in-law, or grandparent-in-law (including their ex-spouse’s) to look after their children are eligible to apply for a Grandparent Caregiver Relief of up to $3,000. As policies go, this one is a quadruple-whammy MVP: one that aims to strengthen intergenerational ties, reduce the likelihood of elderly isolation, promote the family as the primary source of support, and encourage women to stay in work, all at once.
None of this is to say that grandparenting exists because of tax reliefs or social engineering. Most grandparents are delighted to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives without ever being asked (or told) to do so, without financial compensation ever entering the picture. Most parents would also want the same, for the simplest and purest of all reasons: love.
However, such policies would also not exist without a culture in which intergenerational responsibility is already deeply ingrained. I’m talking, of course, about filial piety.
It is a concept that is impossible to grow up without encountering, present in everything from giving your parents an allowance after you start working to the perception of old folks’ homes as places of abandonment and last resort. The key idea is reciprocity: that we will return the care and love our parents (or grandparents) had shown us in childhood by looking after them when our turn comes.
In other words, growing up entails a role reversal, going from the one being cared for to the one doing the caring. It is the price we all agree to pay for love.
To this end, it is impossible to talk about grandparenting without also looking at how we approach ageing.
As Dr. Kalyani Mehta, the head of the Gerontology graduate programmes at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), wrote in a 2012 paper, the emphasis of grandparents’ roles as childcare providers shifts the image of an older person as someone in need of care to someone who gives care. This turns the traditional concept of the above ‘role reversal’ on its head.
The notion of ‘active ageing’ usually corresponds to keeping fit, staying active and socially engaged, and lifelong learning—in other words, proving that it is as possible to live a fun and fulfilling life at 70 as it is at 35, even if your notion of exercise is now a leisurely stroll around the park rather than Crossfit. In essence, ageing should not immediately correspond to a diminished ability to enjoy life, or participate in it.
There is a strong social aspect to active ageing: retaining close ties to one’s community by spending time with friends and family (or, in this case, grandchildren). This can take the form of virtually anything, from family mealtimes and holidays to teaching your grandparents how to use Facebook and play Candy Crush.
Where this occurs, the effects can be two-way, with scope for grandparents to occupy a much more influential role in their grandchildren’s lives, as V’s grandfather did. As she told me, “He also introduced me to a lot of things I would come to love, like music and photography. He bought me my first piano and film camera and taught me [how to use] both.”
However, just as central to the concept of active ageing is individual fulfilment. One needs only think of every feel-good retirement insurance ad to see this: going on holiday to exotic locations like Argentina or Turkey, taking up ballroom dancing or oil painting, or volunteering with community groups.
None of these things are mutually exclusive to enjoying a rich and loving family life, and they should not be. However, it stands to reason that as individual fulfilment gains more and more cultural legitimacy, and people have more opportunities (and disposable income) to pursue their own interests in old age, the traditional concept of the ‘caregiver’ grandparent is likely to evolve. After all, one of the key attractions of retirement is that your time is your own to spend as you please, and spending afternoon after afternoon with the grandchildren is not everyone’s ideal vision of their 60s and 70s.
Or, as a friend’s mother once told her, “When you have kids of your own, don’t look at me to look after them.”
Beyond these, there are structural factors which will shape the future of grandparenting. With Singapore’s ageing population and falling birth rate, purely as an issue of numbers, fewer of us will get to grandparent than were grandparented ourselves.
Greater international mobility also means that more families are spread across continents than ever before, as people move abroad for work or further study. In such cases, rather than spending every afternoon with the grandchildren after school, grandparents might have to settle for Facetime and occasional visits during the holidays (as was the case with my own family).
Moreover, with longer life expectancies and increases to the retirement and re-employment age, people are likely to be in work longer. In 20 or 30 years’ time, grandparenting may well look like taking the children to the office after picking them up from school, rather than going home to make lunch and watch cartoons.
None of this is to suggest that grandparenting will disappear entirely. As far as family dynamics go, it is a happy medium that pleases just about everyone: parents who would rather leave their little ones in the care of a trusted relative; grandparents who want to spend time with their grandchildren, and a state which positions the family as the first pillar of social support, rather than a welfare system.
Insofar as filial piety and intergenerational closeness remain core tenets of Asian culture—ones which not only define us, but which we actively take pride in, as underpinning a kind of Asian exceptionalism—the disappearance of grandparenting would please exactly no one.
So all things considered, grandparenting probably is not going anywhere. What remains to be seen is what it will look like, given how diverse our notions of ageing, and what makes a good and meaningful life, have become.
Whole teams of policymakers, researchers, and academics, like the Gerontology department at SUSS, are devoted to figuring this out at the macro level. But to get a sense of this at a personal level, the best place to start is probably your own parents.
And this, far more than giving your parents money or taking them out to dinner, is one of the most interesting and complex aspects of adulthood: learning to recognise the people who raised you as individuals, and seeing how much of them now exists in you.
—This article was written in partnership with Rice Media
Works consulted: Experiencing Grandparenthood: An Asian Perspective. Mehta, K. and Thang, L.L. (2012) (eds)