The unsung heroes of the American economy: Grandmothers

It was a dream come true when Misa Chen got into a leadership program at Harvard Business School after a lifetime of struggling with dyslexia.

But her youngest son was only one, and her daughter just 4. Leaving them for more than a week to attend sessions in-person didn’t feel feasible, Chen, CEO and co-founder of LA-based Autopilot Reviews, tells Fortune. Until her mother-in-law stepped in.

Since her grandchildren were born, Ana Léniz Mezzano—“Ani” to her family—has been taking months away from her life in Santiago, Chile, to spend with her son and daughter-in-law, and their two children. “I love being a grandma,” Mezzano says. “It's so rewarding.”

Mezzano, who still works as a nurse, spent three months with Chen when her oldest daughter was born. And when her grandson was born, she again came to stay with the family and help out. “I have a huge bond with them,” Mezzano says of her grandchildren, but adds that it’s a challenge not to live closer.

“After giving birth—I had a really tough C-section—having [Ani] here was just so priceless because she was a comfort to my older daughter, and I could trust her with a newborn,” Chen says.

These days when Mezzano comes to visit, Chen says she packs in the speaking engagements, work travel, and Harvard classes. “I kind of optimize that time when she's here because it's such a comfort to the kids to have her here,” she says.

“My mother-in-law is one of the only reasons I am able to have a career,” Chen adds, saying that Mezzano’s caregiving support has allowed her to headline conferences and attend classes. “This is the biggest game changer.”

Mezzano’s trips from Chile to L.A. to care for her grandchildren may seem extraordinary, but grandparents—particularly grandmothers—routinely fill the caregiving gap for their families.

In fact, 42% of working parents rely on grandmothers for childcare, according to a new survey for International Women’s Day conducted by The Harris Poll among more than 2,000 U.S. adults.

And when childcare issues come up—such as school or daycare closures or when children are home sick—four in 10 parents with children under 18 rely on grandma’s unpaid help, the survey finds. In many cases, grandmothers provide this care often at the expense of their own time and financial security.

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But with many Americans struggling to find affordable childcare, grandmothers serve a critical support to both their families and the wider economy. Without this typically unpaid—or underpaid—help, many more working parents would be forced to make difficult choices about pulling back from their professional lives in order to care for their children.

The vast majority, 92%, of Americans believe grandmas are making significant economic contributions through the childcare they provide. Moreover, about 83% say that without this care the American economy would suffer.

Without grandma’s help, more working parents would feel the pinch

Colorado-based Kiki McGough says she was always waiting for the day when she could be a grandmother. With her background as early-childhood special education teacher, McGough felt she would be able to help her daughter and son-in-law navigate the childcare system.

But when her granddaughter’s childcare suddenly fell through when she was eight months old, McGough, her daughter, and son-in-law were left scrambling to cobble together coverage. “We pasted together a schedule,” McGough says, but admits much of the burden fell on her, even though she was still working herself.

Not only was she watching her granddaughter before and after daycare three days a week, she also watched her two weekday afternoons when daycare wasn’t available. But with her son-in-law traveling for work and her daughter, a teacher, on a strict schedule, it was the only way both could stay in the workforce.

Still, it can be challenging to juggle—especially for grandparents. McGough would be up at 6 a.m. so she could pick-up her granddaughter and drive her to daycare because her daughter and son-in-law needed to be at work before the center opened. Usually McGough was also in charge of pick-ups, too.Not only that, she was on-call for holidays and sick days.

“I would call in sick to work to watch my granddaughter because my job is a little more flexible than my daughter’s teaching job,” McGough says. “All of this was at no cost to my daughter because the cost for an infant toddler program matched the college tuition in Colorado.”

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With soaring costs and long waitlists, it’s not uncommon for grandmothers to routinely provide childcare so parents can work. About 4 in 5 working parents who rely on grandmas for childcare say that support allows them to pursue their career goals, according to Harris’ survey. About 67% of those working parents say there are times they might have lost their job without the help of their child’s grandmother stepping in to help with care.

Without the unpaid childcare provided by grandmothers, 72% of employed Americans say their ability to work would be impacted. A full 20% of working parents who rely on unpaid childcare report they would need to quit their job without this support.

But it’s not without its challenges. McGough says she was lucky in that she was financially secure enough to help out. “It's not like I'm going to bill them for mileage for driving my granddaughter to school or for taking her out on Friday afternoons. I was probably in a better situation than other grandparents would be. But nonetheless, it's a financial burden.”

It’s not just financial challenges either. Yvonne Franklin, who has helped care for her grandchildren and is currently helping raise her great nephew, says many times childcare comes at the expense of her own time.

“I've had things planned, and something happens with my grandkids or my great nephew, and I have to change my plans to be able to take care of them—unfortunately, my plans have to take the backseat.”

Fixing the childcare crisis has ripple effects

Since the onset of the pandemic, many advocates, politicians, and parents have pointed out that the childcare crisis is an economic problem, as well as a personal challenge facing many American families.

Without stable, high-quality childcare, parents are unable to maximize their productivity at work. Children are not getting the foundation they need to succeed. And, less discussed perhaps, grandparents and other extended family members are risking their financial, physical, and mental health to bridge the gap.

Overall, the lack of adequate childcare for infants and young children across the country is now estimated to cost the U.S. $122 billion annually in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue.

Even when parents do have the money to spend on childcare, finding a provider is a challenge. Seven in 10 childcare centers don’t have as many open slots as they’d like, according to a November report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

In total, about 12.3 million children in the U.S. have working parents, but there’s only about 8.7 million licensed childcare slots available, according to a recent Child Care Aware of America report. That leaves a potential gap of about 3.6 million spots.

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The pandemic, of course, hasn’t helped the situation. Thousands of providers permanently closed their doors, while many others remain open, but struggle with increased operating costs and staffing shortages, as well as changing regulations and protocols.

The childcare crisis, however, could get worse as pandemic-era stabilization grants given to providers start to run out this year. That, in turn, could put more pressure on grandparents.

Jacqueline Enriquez was looking forward to traveling in retirement. But childcare can easily turn into a full-time gig.

“My daughter has a two-year-old, and I took care of her from infancy until she was about six months old [because] we struggled to find daycare for her,” Enriquez says. “The choice is: Do I have my daughter quit her job and not have a means of income, or do I make the sacrifice and just try to find part-time work and take care of her?”

For most grandparents, it's not really a question. They’ll continue to sacrifice for their children, no matter how old they get.

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