Mark Leishman share his thoughts on being an older parent.

I put my 3 year old in her car seat the other day and as I was buckling her in I said to her in the way Dad’s chat to their little daughters about nothing in particular:

“So how are you, young lady?”

There was a pause and Rosie replied “Fine….how are you, old man?”

She laughed along with me when she realised she’d said something funny, even though she didn’t know exactly what it was. I might say I felt well and truly put in my place.

I guess I have to come to the realisation that I am an older parent, although I don’t feel it.

I remember once when Rosie was a baby and I went into a retail store with her in a buggy. The shop assistant, trying to make polite conversation, said “so this is your grand daughter?”

I guess when your hair is grey you just have to take it on the chin.

There is probably never such a time as Christmas to appreciate your children and enjoy the moments that Christmas brings. There’s always the considerable stress and lack of time associated with the build up to Christmas and that desire to get everything tidied up before the end of the year. But there are also those magic moments on Christmas morning when the bleary eyed children discover what Father Christmas has left them. And the true believers check whether he has eaten the biscuits and drunk the orange juice left for him.

Our three children range in age from 3 – 13. So at one end we are dealing with little Rosie who is just realising the benefits of Christmas and trying to come to terms with Father Christmas and his snowy white beard. At this point she can’t seem to separate him from the Beast in ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

Molly at 8 is still firmly in the ‘Father Christmas exists’ camp and is choosing to ignore any attempt by school mates to destroy the myth.

Paddy at 13 is just keen on a Nano ipod, and if it has to be that Santa drops in overnight on the 25th then so be it… he’s fine to join in the fun with his sisters.

Not only do I recognise that my children are lucky that a happy Christmas is a reality for them when for thousands of New Zealand kids it’s a sad and disappointing time, but our children are also so lucky that they have both sets of Grandparents alive. And for the most part, healthy.

One set of Grandparents lives in the South Island and my parents, while from the South Island originally, moved to Auckland 20 years ago to be with their children and grandchildren.

It has proven to be the correct decision on their part. While some of their children have lived in various parts of the world over the years, we are now all home and living within two kilometres of our parents.

The bonus has come with the 11 grandchildren. My parents, in their 80s, have very busy lives keeping up with all the school and sporting occasions that they attend.

Fortunately, the South Island Grandparents are great travellers and regular visitors (always timed to coincide with some special event), so they are often in attendance too. They are a wonderful couple who delight in teaching their grand children how to appreciate and embrace life at the same time. They’ve always had a tremendous civic duty and have worked tirelessly for their community. This has included 12 years as Mayor and Mayoress of Timaru. They have passed this on, by example, to their children and grandchildren.

Having said that, my Father-in-Law has a wonderful sense of the absurd. A few years ago he received an invitation to my daughter Molly’s 3rd birthday ‘fairy’ party which stipulated that everyone should wear a fairy costume.

Well this was mana from heaven for “Grandy” who hired a shocking pink fairy costume and made a grand entrance at the party, to rapturous applause. There was slight hitch in that his fairy dance ended with a bit of a crash, reminding all of us that fairies are possibly not supposed to be 68 years old.

You can just imagine the incredulous delight from the birthday girl and all the other little fairies. Another chapter added to the ‘Grandy’ legend.

With a twinge in his back, but having stolen the show, he was then able to fly back home to his life and work. But for many Grandparents they are not able to ‘leave the party’ and go home and put their feet up.

There are thousands of Grandparents who have raised families and then discovered that at a time when they are ready to enjoy their retirement they have to raise another family – their grandchildren.

These are grandparents who in some cases have to go back to work or spend their life savings to look after grandchildren from their own children’s broken homes.

The Census back in 2001 revealed that nearly 4,500 grandparents were raising grandchildren. Five years on there are many more than that.

The main reasons grandparents get involved is that they see their grandchildren suffering in homes that have drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, child abuse and neglect.

Sadly, grandparents are not supported in New Zealand in the same way that foster carers are. It seems unbelievable to me that they are not entitled to the same money that foster parents get for things like children’s clothing, birthday and Christmas presents.

I read of one grandmother who raised her five grandchildren under 18 on a $300 a week widow’s benefit.

These grandparents have demonstrated a huge sense of responsibility towards members of their family and yet it is unfair that they are penalised by not getting the same financial support as ‘out of family’ foster carers.

Although the Government has pledged to address the issue of parity for superannuitant grandparents they have not yet come through for this group let alone all other (somewhat younger) grandparents.

And as if the financial side of things isn’t bad enough, sadly many of the grandchildren have psychological, behavioral or medical issues.

So it’s a tough life for grandparents who have already done their bit. Those who have taken on this full-time responsibility have had to become very resourceful advocates for their grandchildren.

There is a wonderful organisation in New Zealand called ‘Grandparents Raising Grandchildren’ (GRG) who provide support to grandparents who are in these difficult circumstances. GRG wants to ensure fair treatment from the legal and child protection services in New Zealand so that the children involved can have more stable and normal lives.

They do this by providing support for the grandparents and chances for the children to meet others in a similar situation. They are also trying to find out exactly how many grandparents are in this situation.

The group was started around eight years ago by Diane Vivian who took over the care of her small, traumatised grandchildren and she couldn’t believe the stress she encountered.

When she tried to find some support she discovered there was none. As GRG grew they spent many months venting their anger and frustrations, weeping and gradually building trust and a sense of solidarity.

Today there are over 45 support groups throughout the country, reaching from Dargaville in the north to Invercargill in the south. Groups now lobby parliament and speak to many community organisations. They’re striving to make a difference for all grandchildren and grandparents who care about them.

And so as we lead up to Christmas lets salute those grandparents who put the needs of their precious ones before their own. They are really doing angels’ work here on earth and let’s hope at this special family time they get all the support they need to have a really Happy Christmas.

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Mark Leishman is the devoted dad to three children- Paddy, Molly and Rosie. His children span 10 years in age so he has plenty of experience in everything from sleepless nights to teenagers.

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