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Who’s watching the kids? Grandma and Grandpa

Ruth and Bill Robeson read with their grandchildren

Ruth and Bill Robeson read with their grandchildren Talia and Eric while caring for them in Hauppauge. Credit: Barry Sloan

Seven years ago, upon hearing her daughter lament that child-care costs hindered her from having a baby, Ruth Robeson had but one response: “I’ll be your baby-sitter.”

About two months later, Robeson’s daughter, Jennifer, a veterinarian, announced that she was expecting. By the time her daughter’s maternity leave ended, Robeson, now 67, had retired from her preschool teaching job to care five days a week in her Hicksville home for her grandson Eric, now 6.

Five years ago, Robeson took on the added responsibility of watching Eric’s newborn sister, Talia, but stopped baby-sitting on Thursdays, her daughter’s day off.

In 2016, when her husband Bill, 70, retired from his position as a hospital radiation safety officer — but retained his part-time teaching gig at Molloy College — Robeson curtailed her grandkid care to Mondays and Wednesdays after school. On those days, she looks after the kids in their Hauppauge home until the Robesons’ son-in-law Trevor, a nuclear medicine technologist, returns from work around 4:30 p.m.

“I love watching the children,” said Robeson, “but I needed a life.”

While no data exists on the number of Long Islanders baby-sitting their children’s kids during the workweek, anecdotal evidence suggests that many are voluntarily doing so anywhere from two to five days a week.

Their reasons range from easing their adult children’s financial pressures (most grandparents don’t get compensated for baby-sitting) to reliving the warm experiences of their own parenting years. Grandmothers who were largely stay-at-home moms say they want to provide their grandchildren with the same kind of love and attention they gave to their own offspring.

“I don’t like the idea of day care,” said Marsha Koondel, 66, a Wantagh resident who had worked as a bookkeeper in her husband’s home-based CPA practice when their own children started school but has mostly stopped to watch their grandson, Colin, 22 months. “I’d rather be the one to take care of him and any other grandchildren because I can give him better care and a lot of love,” she said.

Population shifts are also fueling granny-as-nanny arrangements. According to Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, demographic studies show seniors and millennials are increasingly staying put on Long Island. As a result, he added, the two generations are well-positioned for a symbiotic relationship.

“The availability of Grandma or Grandpa to provide free baby-sitting is an enormous help,” said Levy, since Long Island “remains one of the most expensive places to live.”

For grandparents, baby-sitting can be a life-enriching experience, enabling them to share their wisdom and forge a joyous, intimate connection with their grandkids, said Gayle Berg, a psychologist in Roslyn. For grandfathers, especially, who “weren’t around much” as parents because of work obligations, watching grandchildren is a chance to experience the special times they missed with their own kids, Berg said.

According to the Berlin Aging Study, whose findings were published in 2016 in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, caring for young children improves older adults’ longevity and reduces stress. But there’s a caveat: baby-sitting five days a week or more has the reverse effect, the study notes.

The reality is that baby-sitting is far from child’s play, say grandparents. It requires coordinating medical appointments, cooking, shopping and socializing with their child care obligations. Even more challenging is the fine art of juggling their desire to remain the loving elder with the need to discipline their charges with a firm — albeit gentle — “no” or timeout session. A day of blowing bubbles, reading children’s stories and cleaning up after mealtimes and playtimes can be both exhausting and enough to make a grandparent cranky.

“The days are long when he doesn’t take a nap, and at the end of the week, I’m pretty tired,” said Koondel, who watches her grandson five days a week but takes off every other Wednesday for anything from doctor’s appointments to lunches with friends.

Since Colin enjoys “getting out,” Koondel brings him to Target, the park, the library and a children’s music program. During the summer, she sets up a blowup pool and bubble machine in her backyard. Koondel has also turned her married son’s former bedroom into the toy-filled “Colin’s Room.”

“Baby-sitting takes a lot of patience now that I’m older,” said Koondel, “but it’s so worth it. I was a stay-at-home mom and loved every minute of it, and now I’m getting a chance to do it again.”

She added that her daughter Beverly Bolnick, an executive at a media company near her parents’ home, frequently thanks Koondel for giving her peace of mind about Colin’s care and helping her save “a lot of money.”

As a token of gratitude, Bolnick, who lives with her husband, Jeffrey, a hospital surgical technician, in Bethpage, said she tries to treat her mother to lunch at least once a week.

“I know it’s tiny, but it’s something,” Bolnick said.

Terry Nyer, 64, a retired paralegal, and her husband, Neal, 68, who had worked in information technology, baby-sit for 15-month-old Allison three days a week; her son’s in-laws baby-sit the other two days.

“We work as a team,” she said.

For Terry Nyer, the challenging part about baby-sitting is setting the alarm at 4:45 a.m. in order to arrive at the Hicksville home of their son and daughter-in-law, both high school teachers, by 6:15 a.m. Nyer gets some shut-eye when Allison naps.

“Being with the baby is the easy part,” said the Wantagh resident who, during the day, sends photos of Allison to keep the tot’s parents in the loop.

Syd Cohen, 73, a retired nursery school teacher, and her husband, Kenny, 73, a retired middle school teacher, watch Brianna, 4, their daughter Eve’s child, two days a week and Isaiah, 5, their daughter Heidi’s son, on a different couple of days. Their efforts include picking up the kids from their schools, bringing them back to the Cohens’ home in Seaford and serving them snacks and dinner.

As part of her responsibilities, Syd Cohen gives her grandchildren only foods that conform to her daughters’ wishes; Brianna is a vegetarian and Isaiah is a vegan.

Yet Cohen, who has four children and seven grandkids, said she is guilty of giving into her grandmotherly instincts when Brianna asks for Oreos before dinner.

“I know I give more than mommy does,” she confessed.

Baby-sitting do’s and don’ts

Thinking of becoming a regular weekday baby-sitter for your grandkids?

Before taking on such a responsibility, said Gayle Berg, a psychologist in Roslyn Heights, you should discuss specifics with your adult children, including the exact number of hours a day you are comfortable baby-sitting; alternative child care measures in the event of intervening health issues; and the parents’ rules regarding such issues as safety and discipline.

Both sides need to “honor and respect the boundaries,” Berg said. “The minute we get into the ‘zone of resentment,’ we feel unappreciated and taken advantage of, and that becomes problematic.”

Here are a few more pointers from grandparents:

n Respect parents’ instructions and wishes — even if you don’t agree with them.

n Get parents’ input on everything from new food choices to new activities before presenting them to grandkids.

n Do not describe your role as “raising” your grandchildren.

n Avoid arguing with grown children in front of the youngsters.

— Cara S. Trager

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