Methods: In this longitudinal ethnographic study, 39 in-depth interviews were conducted with the left-behind grandparents in their 60s to 80s (13 female and 26 male) within a two-year period. Participants were recruited in a typical migrant village in North China where 119 out of its 126 households had at least one member working away from the local area. The interview focused on the meanings of care, asking the participants to tell the interviewer what personal stories and experiences them had on care, how they accessed care resources, and how they had been taken care of, and had taken care of other family members, and where/under what conditions they care for The care was not defined by the researcher/interviewer to purposefully elicit the thick-descriptions of care as multi-faceted life experiences richly situated in each story’s social and cultural environment.
Findings: Data analysis reveals that grandparenting care was marked by three aspects: first, grandparents and grandchildren providing mutual companionship with grandparents also providing daily support. Second, for school-age children, grandparents usually demonstrate a lack of guidance and educational support while they maintain the minimal support of daily meals. While grandparents generally all agree on the importance of education, they had little to contribute to grandchildren’s school success. The communication between the migrant parents and the left behind grandparents did not show adequate focus on children’s school performance. Third, grandparents demonstrate multiple focuses in life: grandchildren’s physical wellbeing and work on the farm, and conduct frugal living. As a way of coping, grandparents often change part of the household functions for frugal living and coping with economic issues. Such different aspects and focuses suggest that grandparents prioritize grandchildren’s physical wellbeing over mental and emotional wellbeing and school performance.
Conclusion and Implications: Findings highlight the discrepancies between the needs of grandchildren and the kinds of care and support that grandparents can manage to provide. Such discrepancies demand structural attention and policy changes so that left behind children’s needs on school work can be better met. Findings also provide explanations for left behind children’s mental health issues that other studies focused on.