I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Botswana for the wedding of my cousin Harry. Aside from the staggering beauty and buttock clenching proximity to wild animals I was struck by the family dynamics. Present at the wedding was my mum, who helped to raise my cousin Harry when he moved from Botswana to England to be schooled here, Harry’s own mother Elizabeth (pictured) and his other auntie, who also had a strong hand in his upbringing. It must be the only wedding where the groom had three mothers in attendance! The poor bride, imagine having three mother-in-laws? The unconventional family connections didn’t stop there.
The safari lodge we stayed at in the remote Northern Tuli block was heavily staffed by young women. I got chatting to Grace, who told me her village was twenty km away across bumpy, hazardous roads so she lived on site. Conversation turns as it inevitably does between women of any nationality to children, and Grace explained her three daughters were being raised by her mother. ‘In Botswana the grandmothers raise the children not the mothers. It’s normal,’ she explained. ‘Does your mum mind bringing up your children?’ I asked. Grace shrugged. ‘She must, it’s what all grandmothers do so their daughters can work. When my daughters have children I will be expected to give up work and look after them. Besides,’ she added with a mischievous smile. ‘What else is she going to do? Older women must work after they retire or else they just sit around on their bums all day and get lazy.’ My retired mother’s coffee cup froze half way to her lips as I nodded my head enthusiastically.
Grace had no idea she had inadvertently stumbled into a debate that has been dominating the news for much of last year. Namely that British grandparents are now saving families a record £7.3billion a year by taking over childcare and that their total number of childcare hours have increased by 35 per cent. Caroline Abrahams, from Age UK, said: ‘Grandparents are such an important part of children’s lives. ‘They are playing an increasing role in providing an affordable way for parents to continue working.’ Sam Smethers, chief executive of Grandparents Plus, believes the Government should make it easier for grandparents to combine work and caring responsibilities. ‘Grandparents are throwing a lifeline to families squeezed by falling real incomes and rising childcare costs,’ he said. ‘The contribution they are making within their families and the wider economy is enormous and rising.’ That’s not surprising when you consider the extortionate cost of childcare in Britain.