Grandparents who travel to care for grandchildren are a growing trend

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Shelly Birkelo
Sunday, July 28, 2013

JANESVILLE--Cathy and Jim Jennings leave Janesville before 5:30 a.m. three days a week and fight rush-hour traffic in 90-minute drive to Milwaukee so they can baby-sit their two grandchildren.

Cindy Akpoguma drives 185 miles to Iowa to baby-sit her three preschool age grandsons for days or weeks.

These local grandparents are among a growing trend of grandparents who travel to baby-sit grandchildren.

They don't do it because they have to, they said. They do it because they want to.

“There are a lot of us,” Cathy said. “I have a friend that takes a train to Chicago every week and baby-sits for two granddaughters from two daughters for three days a week and another friend went to Rockford (Ill.) every week.”


A 2011 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey showed 1.9 million grandparents caring for grandchildren.

A year later, a decade-long study at the University of Chicago revealed 61 percent of grandparents surveyed provided at least 50 hours of care a year, and 74 percent baby-sat or provided care weekly.

Earlier this year, grandparents.com reported 72 percent of grandparents take care of their grandchildren regularly, while 13 percent are primary caregivers.

Cathy and Jim Jennings and Cindy Akpoguma said they baby-sit willingly.

“We want to help them out economically, but the biggest reason is we want to be close to our grandchildren. We want to see them often and have a personal relationship with them,” Cathy said.

“It's the satisfaction that you're helping your child and her spouse get their feet on the ground. My parents did it for me. It's just the way I was brought up,” Akpoguma said.


Laura Murray, the Jennings' daughter, cited  benefits to having her parents baby-sit her children—Madelyn, 3, and James Thomas, 1.

“Everybody wants to be able to leave their children with somebody they trust and in a safe place. I get that,” she said.

Laura also knows she is leaving her kids with people who love them as much as she does.

“That's such a huge relief to not have to worry about what your kids are doing or if they are safe,” she said.

When the Jenningses began baby-sitting three years ago, the savings for Laura made it possible for her to work part time.

“If I worked full time, I'd have to put the kids in day care and pay substantially more,” Laura said.

“This setup allowed me to be guilt free. I can maintain my career, contribute to my family financially and still get all this great time with my kids, who get to have a special relationship with their grandparents, who adore coming to see them every week.''

Andrea Akpoguma finds it reassuring she can trust her boys—Mason Mather, 3; Elijah Mather, 2 1/2; and Jonah Mather, 9 months—with their grandmother Cindy.

“They're with a family member who knows specifically how I would like my children to be raised, what my priorities are and everything I would want for my children. The care is more specialized, and they're in their own house in a familiar environment,” she said.


Without their parents' help and the free child care they provide, Laura and Andrea's lives would be different.

Laura lives in Wauwatosa and works as a speech pathologist for a Milwaukee area school district. Without help from her parents, she would need to work full time, but most of her bigger paycheck would be eaten by the higher cost of child care, she said.

“The kind of day care we wanted—it's so expensive,” she said.

Her husband, Casey, is a mason and is away for long hours traveling to and from job sites.

Without help from her parents, Andrea, who is a fellow at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, said either she or her husband, Justin, who is a paramedic, would have to quit working.

“We couldn't afford day care, and to find a live-in nanny or somebody else—it just wouldn't work for us because our jobs are odd and have demanding hours,” she said.

“Child care is absolutely insane to pay for, and the waiting lists are very long. I believe day care for a 1- or 2-year-old for a month every day is at least $1,200 to $1,500 per child and even more for those younger. There's no way I could afford that; it's more than our mortgage payment,” Andrea said.


The Jenningses and Akpoguma said they don't want or expect to be paid for baby-sitting their grandchildren, even though they both spend about $55 a week on their round trips for gas.

“We tell them we don't need to be paid. We want to do this,” said Cathy, 57, who is an executive director for the Literacy Connection, Janesville.

“This is like his job and purpose as a retiree. He really looks forward to it and plans for it,” Cathy said of Jim, 57, who is retired and baby-sits two of the three days each week.

“We don't take any cash to do it. My parents baby-sat my children,” said Akpoguma, 51.

Cathy and Jim enjoy putting the grandkids in the stroller and walking to the lake, park, library or coffee shop. Although they are often exhausted by the end of their baby-sitting shifts, they don't mind.

“It's a lot of fun but also a lot to manage,” said Jim, who admitted that baby-sitting his grandchildren gives him an opportunity to experience what he missed with his kids.

“You get to experience life through new eyes,” Cathy said.

Akpoguma said her appreciation for baby-sitting comes when she pulls into the driveway and the two oldest of her grandchildren are waiting in the front window for her to arrive.

“My reward,” she said, “is the happiness those three little boys give me.”

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