Image: Marian Robinson
M. Spencer Green  /  AP file
Marian Robinson, mother-in-law of the Presdient-elect, will be moving into the White House to help care for her granddaughters.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/12/2009 5:19:34 PM ET 2009-01-12T22:19:34

Marian Robinson quit her job in 2007 to help raise her grandchildren.

Robinson, whose son-in-law is Barack Obama, soon to be sworn in as 44th president of the United States, left behind her job at an Illinois bank to help care for the Obama’s daughters when the couple set out on the campaign trail.

She took the girls to school, made them dinners and helped them with their homework.

Call it the “grandma” track  —  grandmothers putting aside their own careers or juggling work while trying to raise their children’s kids.

This lifestyle is very familiar to Teresa Gamez. She’s a grandmother and a full-time processor and sales assistant at Cookies From Home, based in Tempe, Ariz.

Gamez helps her daughter, who’s struggling to survive financially and working two jobs, by watching her four children, ages 3 to 9.

“On Monday, I work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then pick up my grandkids from day care and then take them to my home,” she explains. “I start dinner while the little ones watch TV, and I help the older ones with homework.”

Monday through Thursday the children stay overnight with Gamez and then their mother picks them up.

“Sometimes I get tired,” she admits. But “when I don’t see them I miss them.”

At a time when work-life balance should be a distant memory, many grandparents, typically grandmothers, are suddenly back in the parenting saddle again.

A growing number of women like Gamez and Robinson — who is expected to move into the White House at least temporarily to continue helping with the kids — are pitching in with the care of their grandchildren, even though many have yet to hit the proverbial retirement rocking chair.

In a sign of the times, the Census Bureau started tracking the phenomenon in 2004, and it’s becoming more pervasive.  Today 1.5 million working grandparents are caring for grandkids, up from 1.4 million in 2004.

“These grandparent caregivers have the same issues working parents have — balancing working with caring for children,” says Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of intergenerational advocacy group Generations United. She noted that more than two-thirds of grandparent caregivers are under the age of 60, and 71 percent are still in the work force.

“We often see children come into a relative’s care because they have some special needs, or the cost of child care is just too expensive,” Lent says.

Other factors driving the phenomenon are parents who fall victim to drug and alcohol abuse, are mentally ill or incarcerated, or are otherwise unable to raise their kids, says social worker Sylvie de Toledo, founder of Grandparents as Parents.

“If the grandparents don’t step in the kids could go to foster care,” notes De Toledo, co-author of “Grandparents as Parents: A Survival Guide for Raising a Second Family.”

But the added responsibilities that come along with raising young kids often affect a grandparent's job, she adds, “because they are constantly called away because of school problems, doctors’ appointments or having to go to court.”

“One grandmother I knew was fired from her job after 15 years with a company,” she recalls.

It’s typically not the grandparent’s choice to take on the caregiver role, she explains. “It’s often thrust upon them.”

Indeed, Carolyn Threadgill’s daughter’s drug addiction compelled her to step in and take over the care of her two grandchildren, one in second grade, and the other in seventh.

Threadgill, the publisher for Parenting Press, a publisher of child guidance books, says, “I’ve had the older boy for eight years and the younger one for four years.”

Her employer, she says, is understanding when it comes to taking time off to deal with kid issues, but “most of my accrued vacation and sick leave time are used dealing with the kids’ needs every month.”

What about balance?

“What’s that?” she asks. “At this point, not much occurs that is for me alone, except my avid reading every night before bed and my morning newspaper.”

Taking on such a caregiver role could affect a grandparent’s health, both physically and mentally, according to Meredith Minkler, a professor at the School of Public Health at the  University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the issue.

“For the grandparents, the ones that become full-time caregivers, often they will say, ‘I’m relieved I can do this, but I’m depressed, or ‘totally stressed,’ or ‘I had to give up a job,” she says. Many, she adds, had to cut their hours, or take a demotion to make the new role work.

Full-time caregiver grandparents, she adds, “are more likely to be overweight, to have functional limitations and more likely to be depressed. It’s not a good situation for them.”

While raising grandchildren can be challenge, some grandmothers have figured out how to make it work.

Eileen Marrison owns and operates Two Men and a Truck moving franchises in Nebraska and is also able to help her daughter and son-in-law with the care of their kids.

Two days a week, Marrison watches her 1-year old granddaughter Sydney for about eight hours during the day at the office. “Sydney and I play, we do puzzles and watch Baby Einstein movies,” she explains.

The high cost of day care was one of the top reasons the family decided on this arrangement, and it’s worked out well for all involved.

“It’s not easy,” admits Marrison, 60, who comes in at 7 a.m. and sometimes has to work until 10 p.m. to get everything done on the days Sydney is in her care. “I don’t mind staying late. It’s quiet and I can get a lot done.”

Also helping Marrison balance work and family is the fact that she’s her own boss and can adjust her schedule to fit in care of her grandkids.

Unfortunately, corporate America has not kept up with this trend of more grandparents caring for their grandkids, according to a Generations United survey that found most companies do not extend health benefits or child care benefits to their employees who are also caregivers of their children’s kids. Of those firms surveyed, only 25 percent offered child-related leave to workers who did not have legal custody of their grandchildren.

Generations United’s Lent is hopeful U.S. companies will become more understanding of this growing number of grandparent caregivers in the workforce.

“We can always be thinking about what we can do to be supportive of families,” she says. “A lot can be done in terms of offering flexibility in workplace.”

Lent offered two Web sites that are good resources for caregiver grandparents where you can find out about the laws in your state and also connect with support groups — www.grandfactsheets.org and www.grandfamilies.org.

Many grandparent advocates hope to see public policy changes under the new administration in the form of paid family leave and programs to help parents pay for the high-cost child care.

Maybe a grandmother in the White House will help things along.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

Video: Huffington: A 'first granny' in the White House would be good for America

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