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Out of Mothballs
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Oldies putting retirement on hold to care for the grandchildren

The caring of offspring is a traditionally accepted role in the animal kingdom. Snakes seem to be the exception, the little ones slithering from the nest immediately they break out of the shell - most likely because, if they don't, their parents will literally have them for breakfast! Birds, on the other hand - or should it be claw? - quite often share the minding and education of their young, although with the emu, this chore is left solely to the old man. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he can't fly, or he's just slow on the uptake, not realising he's stuck with the brood until Mum nicks off in search of more wild oats. The lion, of course, has his pride, yet he doesn't seem to worry about looking after the kids while his many wives do the hunting. As a reward, he gets to eat first, so it's probably a fair trade. When it comes to whales, being more intelligent than most creatures, they have established a better system. The youngsters in the pod are turned over to Grandma who is older, wiser and certainly well-qualified for the job. In nature, the survival of the species is paramount, and whether the skills to achieve this are instinctive or learned, the care and upbringing of the young is pre-ordained as far as who gets the short straw.

And so to the human race. People are all pretty much the same, biologically speaking, but cultural influences can cause the designated roles of individuals to vary greatly from one society to another. Mothers always used to be first in line to look after the home and the children, until Western civilisations gradually came to terms with the fact that women can not only contribute in the workforce, but are sometimes more of an asset than mere males. Enter Mister Mom, the stay-at-home dad who, sixty years ago wouldn't have been seen dead in the laundry, unless he was fixing the washing machine. Now he cleans, cooks, feeds the little one and takes the older kids to and from school. Although the parents have switched jobs, the new system still means one of them is able to provide that element so essential to a child's early development - a caring adult who is there whenever needed, no matter what. Unfortunately, the ideal isn't always possible. As financial pressures increase, the single-income family is becoming an impractical thing of the past; and when both parents have to work, the welfare of their children can take a nose-dive.

There are, of course, kindergartens and child-care centres to fill some of the gap, and mixing with other children does help infants improve certain social skills; but, whereas those in charge of these convenient institutions are generally well-suited surrogates, they are only part-time and no substitute for the presence and guidance of a family member. Fortunately, there are alternatives - aunts and uncles and, of course, good ol' Grandma and Granddad. It used to be that these ancient relics were just a standby when having a night out with friends, someone with a vested interest to baby-sit for a few hours. Then there might be the odd day of relative freedom for parents who could farm out the ankle-biters to Nan and Pop. For the seniors it might have sounded okay in theory, a pleasant trip to the beach or the park, playing games and reliving some of their own youth. The wake-up call came at the end of the day, by which time the olds would have been dead on their feet and glad to hand the grand-children back. Their role as temporary minders has been around for as long as grey hair, and bouncing the little lad or lass on their knee was just an occasional treat for most grandparents; but the times they are a-changing. Today, more than ever before, true retirement has gone by the board as many of these ageing redoubtables are hauled off their rocking chairs to be enlisted as the parents that kids get when their proper ones are off somewhere else. Past their prime maybe, but they are back in the thick of it, probably doing the most important job of their lives.

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