We’ve all heard it and many of us have uttered it ourselves, “We moved to be closer to family.” Rarely is that statement followed up with the question of “why?” And if the person speaking has children, well then there is absolutely no question as to why. The answer is of course because many of us love our families and relish the joys of being close to them, but we also desire and count on their support – in the myriad of ways a family can be supportive – particularly when children are involved.
Do you have family members nearby who assist you with childcare? Or, like me, is most of your extended family out of state or too far away to be involved in your daily life? Until I had kids, I could never have imagined how mentally and financially different raising kids could be with supportive family nearby than without. The value of the close relationships children develop with grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles and the exposure to multigenerational patterns of childrearing cannot be quantified. But even setting aside those profound benefits and looking at it in purely financial terms, the cost of caring for children is significantly greater for parents who do not have involved, supportive family members in close proximity.
My youngest daughter went back to preschool this week after a 3 week shutdown in between the summer and fall sessions. My mother-in-law offered to fly out and stay with us for 2 of those 3 weeks to care for her while the rest of us worked and went to school. Having not seen her for a year and a half and with no other family nearby to assist, we were not used to such an offer and eagerly accepted. Defying all mother-in-law stereotypes, she ended up being the perfect houseguest and it was wonderful to have her here for such an extended period of time. It wasn’t without its stresses, of course, mostly related to the kids acting out perhaps in adjusting to the rules of an authority figure they hardly know. But despite the challenges of becoming part of our family unit for 14 days – ugly underbelly and all – she told us she valued the experience deeply because it allowed her to really get to know her grandkids. As Frank Bruni so eloquently described in his recent article, The Myth of Quality Time, there is no substitute for sustained physical presence. We cannot “plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, (or) engineer intimacy in an appointed hour. A long weekend will give you a superficial glimpse, but a two week caretaking job will reveal true identities, warts and all.
I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if Grandma lived nearby and helped like this on a regular basis. Not having that luxury, it’s hard to fathom all the ways this would change our lives. Financially alone, we saved about $1200 during those 2 weeks just by Grandma stepping in and sparing us from two weeks of camp and aftercare fees. Plus we got a “free” date night, another $100 savings with no babysitter to pay. To have that kind of support on a regular or even semi-regular basis, the financial savings would reach into the tens of thousands of dollars – and therefore it is not a stretch to stay that Grandma is truly worth her weight in gold.
Of course, there was a deeper savings that cannot be quantified on a calculator, and one whose value I had not considered until my mother-in-law’s visit. During those two weeks, there were meetings that came up last minute at work and school, a doctor’s appointment, and an unexpected car repair. Those everyday challenges typically require my husband and I plotting and negotiating the necessary schedule changes with our bosses and each other, frantically texting our babysitter, or taking vacation time. When my mother-in-law was here, I could simply call her and tell her what time I would be home. No stress, no time spent scrambling for coverage. The peace of mind her presence afforded was a stark contrast to our typical routine. I knew I could count on someone to care for my girls and adapt to our family’s needs no matter what came up. If you have close, involved family, how incredibly comforting it must be to have a support “team” working with you like this all of the time.
Many of you are probably reading this and thinking how obvious these observations are, and that they are precisely why so many people choose to live near family. But for those of us who have very small, far-flung families with minimal involvement, it becomes something quite remarkable and an experience we covet. I recognize there can be drawbacks to having family involvement, including the perils of over-involvement. Still, no matter how you tally up the benefits – financial, mental, social, developmental, professional, emotional – it’s hard to dispute that Grandma is both an incredible value and truly priceless.