Social change and the change in the traditional structures of families gave way to an increase in the phenomenon where grandparents act as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. The reasons for the increase are linked to aspects such as parents’ psycho-social inability to take care of their children; the death of one or both parents; drug abuse by one or both parents; jail sentence of one or both parents; health problems such as HIV/Aids of one or both the parents; as well as aspects pertaining to the divorce of parents. Due to the increase in the phenomenon terminology has emerged over the years to refer to families where grandparents are the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. These families are referred to as “skipped-generation families” or “grandfamilies” and the grandchildren are referred to as “grandkin”.
The theoretical point of departure of the current study is role theory as put forward by Landry-Meyer and Newman (2004). The following three aspects of role theory which apply specifically to grandparents who act as the primary care givers of their grandchildren are of specific importance: the timing of the new role that grandparents have to fulfil, the ambiguity of the role, and the conflict attached to the ambiguity of the role.
It became evident from the literature review that little to no research has been done on white grandparents who act as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren in the suburban areas of South Africa. By comparison, much research has been done among grandparents who act as primary caregivers of their grandchildren in most of the other cultural groups in South Africa.
The general aim of the study on which this article is based was to qualitatively explore white grandparents’ perspectives on the specific roles they took on themselves, as well as their experiences of these roles while acting as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren.
Purposive sampling was used to select potential participants who met the following inclusion criteria: participants must belong to the white population group; they must reside in a specific town in the Free State; they must act as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren 18 years and younger; and they must be willing to participate in the study. Ten participants who met the inclusion criteria were selected to participate in the study. Four of the ten participants were male, and six were female participants. After informed consent was obtained from all the participants, they were engaged in an in-depth, one-on-one unstructured interview. The participants were asked to reflect on the following: Describe your experience of having to act as the primary caregiver of your grandchildren. Follow-up probing questions were also asked, such as: “Which specific roles were added for which you became responsible after becoming the primary caregiver of your grandchildren?” The data obtained from the interviews was analysed using the six steps as discussed by Clarke and Braun (2013).
Additional roles that grandparents acting as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren became responsible for are a financial role, a mediating role and a disciplinary role. According to the grandparents the added financial responsibility has the most profound impact on their role as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. All of a sudden grandparents are responsible for any medical and/or school fees that their grandchildren may have. However, not being the legal guardian of their grandchildren precludes grandparents from registering their grandchildren on their medical fund. By law, grandparents can become the legal guardian of their grandchildren only if they adopt their grandchildren. For this to happen their biological parents need to sign off all their rights and responsibilities as parents. Not being able to be accepted as the legal guardian of their grandchildren causes feelings of frustration and added stress, something grandparents did not expect to have to deal with at this point in their lives. In order to provide and make ends meet, some grandparents are therefore forced to seek out new job opportunities after they had already retired.
Grandparents also take up a mediating role between their grandchildren and their biological parents as well as between them and the schooling community. In most cases the biological parents are the biological children of the grandparents, which contributes to a lot of stress and conflict between not only them and their own children, but also between them and their grandchildren. Grandparents are, however, in agreement that no matter what, they will always encourage and work towards creating an atmosphere where their grandchildren will have a positive relationship with their parents. Grandparents’ mediating role between the grandchildren and the school most of the time involves aspects pertaining to school funds and getting the school community to understand the position that they and their grandchildren find themselves in. Negative experiences with the schooling community contribute to grandparents’ not feeling at liberty to approach the school regarding any further difficulties they may experience.
Grandparents seem always to have a disciplinary role as far as their grandchildren are concerned. However, in their traditional role as grandparents their disciplinary role is supportive to that of the biological parents. Being primary caregivers changes their role to that of becoming the ones who are primarily responsible for the discipline of their grandchildren. At this point in their lives grandparents feel that they had their turn to discipline children and therefore sometimes do not discipline their grandchildren the way they should. Grandparents end up doubting their abilities to be primary caregivers and feeling ambivalent about this role they have to fulfil, seeing that they would rather want to be the ones who spoil their grandchildren.
An important aspect that came to the fore in the study is that the phenomenon where grandparents are the primary caregivers of their grandchildren is an increasing one and one which is not going to disappear. It is therefore important that all role players (school communities, social workers, healthcare workers, medical funds and members of the law community) should be made aware of this phenomenon in order to find solutions for best practices regarding how to address the psycho-social challenges posed by it.
Keywords: disciplinary role; financial provider; grandchildren; grandparents; mediating role; primary caregivers; role conflict