On her way to work last week, Mara Rey Suarez made an unplanned pit stop. Midway through her commute, she spun her car in the opposite direction and dashed off to cuddle with her twin grandsons before heading to her Miami office.
As a mother, Suarez says she never would have considered a late arrival at work. But now, enjoying the flexibility that her senior title at City National Bank affords her, she wants to “be there” for her four grandchildren.
“I have my priorities much clearer,” she said. “I have passion for my role at my company, but I want to be a part of my grandchildren’s lives, and I will make as much time as possible.”
Grandparents like Suarez may not have the same responsibilities as parents, but they still must juggle schedules to be close to their grandchildren while managing their own careers, households and social lives. Having sacrificed balance when their own kids were young, some grandparents today prioritize efforts to bond with their grandchildren.
As Doreen Rosenthal and Susan Moore, authors of “New Age Nanas: Being a Grandmother in the 21st Century,” explain in their book: “The old stereotype of delicate ladies in rocking chairs, scone makers par excellence, has changed.”
Research by Rosenthal and Moore found that most of the 1,000-plus grandmothers they surveyed work full or part time while looking after their grandchildren for varying amounts of time.
Often, today’s doting grandparents were sprinters in their early careers. By now, they know what it takes to run a company, manage a staff, impress a boss. And they’ve learned the price of sacrificing family for career.
Suarez, 53, oversees 160 employees in three different areas as executive vice president for personal and business banking division. While raising her two daughters, she still was rising up the ranks in banking.
“Their dad had the more flexible job and was more involved in the day to day than I was. I carry around guilt about that,” she said. “I have more responsibilities today in my role, but I have more flexibility, and now with my grandkids I want to be part of everything.”
Experts projected that 2010 would be the year when baby boomers like Suarez left the workforce en masse, retired off into the sunset and turned the workforce over to Generation X and the up-and-coming millennials.
But, thanks in part to the recession, for the first time on record there are more seniors than teenagers in the American labor force. Yet even while postponing retirement, grandparents are playing a key role in the care of our nation’s children.
Nearly 4 in 10 grandparents – 2.7 million people – are responsible for some child care for their grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Jodi Orshan is one of them. The 56-year-old grandmother of three works full time as a family therapist/life and parenting coach. With two of her grandchildren nearby, Orshan has rearranged her work schedule, clearing Wednesdays to pick them up from preschool, spend the afternoon with them and make them dinner. She avoids scheduling patients late in the day so she can be a safety net when her daughter needs her.
On occasion, Orshan gets a frantic 6 p.m. phone call from her daughter, who may be delayed at work and unable to relieve the babysitter. Orshan said she’s thrilled to come to the rescue.
“We want to give them support. We also want to build a relationship with our grandkids.”
Because of their experience and longevity, grandparents often have more clout at work than young parents to shift hours and days off or even bring grandkids to the office. Often, they’re the ones who make it to school plays or dance recitals.
“We’re now in positions where we are more in control. We have some flexibility and we’re going to use it for our grandchildren,” Orshan said. “Our children don’t have that control yet.”
Veteran South Florida attorney Jan Atlas said he, too, approaches work and family differently as a boomer. The 68-year-old grandfather of four jets to Charlotte and Los Angeles to see his grandkids at least once a month. The routine requires careful management of his work schedule.
“I plan for my younger associates to take over,” Atlas said. Though in his younger years he invested intense commitment in his career, he said, “I don’t want to be a workaholic at this age.”
To be sure, you will still find boomers who struggle to make ends meet and can’t take time off. You will still find many on the golf course and in yoga class who enjoy their hobbies. But boomers also like to feel needed – and pitching in with their grandkids can be the ideal outlet.
Even more, it turns out to be good for a grandparent’s mental health. A new study by the Institute on Aging at Boston College shows that a good relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren was linked to fewer depression symptoms for both elderly and young adults.
Ginny Gutierrez, director of Community Relations at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she definitely feels that emotional boost from the balance her grandchildren bring to her life. Although her two grandchildren live a few hours away in Key West, Fla., Gutierrez, 60, speaks to them every day, on her way to work and home from work instead of filling that time with business calls.
“It has become really special time for me,” Gutierrez said. “I’m pretty focused all day long. When I hear their voices, I feel my life is full.”