Virginia Ironside: Meet the grandparents: the unsung heroes of family life

What is so rewarding about being with my grandsons is that my love for them is unclouded by the guilt, panic and anxiety I felt with my own son
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The Independent Online

If you ask anyone how they felt about their grandparents, you will, in 90 per cent of cases, notice a distinct relaxing of the muscles, a warm smile and, quite possibly, one of those "Aaah" sounds you get when people see lambs gambolling around in the sunshine. Not only are our memories of our grandparents usually warm and good, but our experiences as grandparents are much the same. Meet the most boot-faced old grump and when you ask to see pictures of his grandchildren he turns into a burbling amiable love-stricken old sweetie. The adjectives "dear old" are the ones most usually applied to grannies, and it's with reason.

Grandparents are relied on increasingly for family support and finances. They provide 40 per cent of childcare for working parents and more than 70 per cent of childcare at other times. Research has even shown that families with strong grandparental connections are likely to have more stable children.

So the news that grandparents are finally to be given legal rights to maintain contact with their grandchildren after a family breakdown or divorce comes not before time. Ministers have long argued that it is a scandal that there is little or no recognition of the vital role that grandparents play in society, and now at last that scandal is being addressed.

As things stand, these usually doting and helpful relations are, after half of break-ups, cut off completely and never see their grandchildren again. When I presented a television programme featuring these tragic figures, I was horrified to hear their stories. One woman's son had died. While his widow was grieving and on her own, the grandmother looked after her grand-daughter every day during the week for two years. But when the daughter-in-law married again she was told, by the new husband, that she wasn't wanted. She's never seen her granddaughter again from that day to this. Cards and presents are returned. She now doesn't even know where they live. The plight of this grandparent, and of countless others, now stands to be eased thanks to a review of the family justice system that recommends enshrining in law greater access to grandchildren.

What is it that grandparents can give a child quite apart from unconditional love – something which, being rare enough, no one should throw off in a hurry? (The Welsh even have an old saw about this. They say: "Perfect love does not come along until the first grandchild.") When I was a young mum I was always worrying. I'd never looked after a child before, I was convinced I was doing everything wrong and I was consumed by guilt. "I should never have brought him into this tragic world," I used to think. Every time my son cried I imagined it was my fault and berated myself for my hopelessness.

But what is so immensely rewarding and fulfilling about being with my grandsons is that my love for them is pure and clear, unclouded by all the guilt, panic and anxiety I felt with my own son when he was tiny. I don't have that sense of, "Oh, Lord, he's tired and listless, he must hate me." Or, "Oh dear, if I do this or don't do that it will ruin him for life." If by chance one of my grandsons suddenly starts crying or yelling his head off, I'm guilt-free. I know that his fears are only tiny clouds in a fundamentally blue sky, and they will, with enough kisses and cuddles, pass.

As a grandparent, you're experienced. First of all, you didn't bring the child into the world, so all that guilt has vanished at a stroke. And then you have patience. Most grandparents work at something, it's true, but they're not frantic, trying to juggle hundreds of emotional, social and career balls at the same time. They're free, probably, of the worry of their own parents getting old, and they have more time on their hands. They're happy to walk at a snail's pace in the park, and spend hours playing peekaboo and clapping games. They don't mind making gingerbread men afternoon after afternoon. I've seen bad mothers turn, with time, into brilliant grandparents.

And, when the grandchildren get older, there is none of the jealousy that parents might feel as they see their young daughter dressing up to go out and have fun. The father worries what fiendish man she might meet; the mother rues the days that, not so long ago, she was going out clubbing and dancing till dawn. Grandparents are over all that. And, on the whole, grandparents are reliable. Children's parents may row or get divorced or have affairs or get drunk or explode with irrational fury, but grandparents, on the whole, are much more even in character. They aren't going anywhere. They're a steadier influence. You can rely on them completely.

Although I don't much like the expression that grandparents love their grandchildren "because they can give them back at the end of the day" there is a certain truth in it. When neither grandchild nor grandparent take their immediate presence for granted, each side behaves a lot better, the child less sulky and the grandparent less snappy. And 27 per cent of children say they can share things with their grandparents they can't talk to their parents about. Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, memorably observed that the reason grandparents and grandchildren get on so well is because they "share a common enemy."

That might be going a bit far, but grandparents can play the role of a European Court. If both parents put their foot down about the child not eating sweets or not being back after 10 at night, the grandparent might not be able to change the situation, but by calmly explaining what's going on, laughingly telling the child about the troubles she had with the parents when they were young, she can take some of the sting out of it. Just talking things over with a grandparent, who knows all the characters concerned, can make life easier to bear. The Italians have a saying which goes: "If nothing is going well, call your grandmother" and it's true. If your mum has punished you, your dad has disapproved, a grandparent can perhaps put a new light on the whole incident.

"A mother becomes a true grandmother," said some wit, "the day she stops noticing the terrible things her children do because she is so enchanted with the wonderful things her grandchildren do." A child needs to have someone in their life who's unable to see their flaws, and who just thinks they're the bee's knees. Grandparents shouldn't ever be dismissed. Whatever else is going on around the family at the time, they're worth cherishing.