What is the role that grandmothers play in modern life? This question was the topic of a fascinating NPR Forum program titled: What Grandmothers Do.
Three grandmother experts discussed the impact grandmothers are making to reshape public life from health care to politics:
- Judith Shulevitz, science editor for The New Republic and author of the recent article “Why Do Grandmothers Exist? Solving an Evolutionary Mystery”
- Linda J. Waite, professor of urban sociology at the University of Chicago and director of the university’s Center on the Demography and Economics of Aging
- Paola Gianturco, photographer, grandmother and author of Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon
We often think of grandmothers as providing a gentle touch for our grandchildren, but the role of grandmothers encompasses something much more concrete. Some 60% of grandmothers provide childcare for their grandchildren, according to Waite. In her book, Grandmother Power, Gianturco writes that the future of Africa may well depend on its grandmothers. In a recent article for The New Republic, Shulevitz writes about the evolutionary reason that grandmothers exist.
Waite explained that grandmothers provide everything from occasional babysitting to residing with and sometimes raising grandchildren. Grandparents have always been important but now more than ever before they’re playing an increasing role for families because of the increase of working mothers, single mothers, and with the recession. 30% of mothers with children under five years depend on grandmothers to provide childcare.
Gianturco shared stories of grandmothers in Africa who are raising their grandchildren who’ve been orphaned by AIDS. Despite grieving the loss of their children, they’ve stepped in and are holding their families together by taking care of as many as a dozen grandchildren. She told about a grandmother who started an organization called Swaziland for Positive Living with 9,000 grandmothers who’ve come together to help each other and partner with grandmothers in Canada who do fundraising for these and other grandmothers affected by AIDS.
Shulevitz told about research that explains the evolutionary mystery of why post-menopausal women continue to live once they can no longer procreate. Anthropologists found that grandmothers served an important role in gathering food for their families to help them thrive in addition to providing childcare.
NPR host, Dave Iverson, a grandfather himself, asked the guests what all this means for our society and what should we be paying attention to. Shulevitz responded by saying that old people are the only naturally occurring resource in our society that is increasing. We’re living in the “age of old age” with Baby Boomers retiring and the fear is that they’ll drain our resources. But on the contrary, this is a resource to be tapped which could help our harried society.
Today’s grandmothers are younger, healthier, and more educated said Gianturco. They have professional expertise and because Boomer grandmas came of age in the sixties, they know how to be activists and make the world better for grandchildren because they were activists when they were students.
One interesting and empathic comment came from a 35-year old mother who shared a different perspective about her generation. We have unrealistic expectations about what we expect our parents to do, such as providing free daycare, cleaning the house and making the dinner, and then texting them to say, please bathe the kids before I get home. People love being grandparents but they’re exhausted and feel they have to provide financial support for their grandchildren. Our generation takes it for granted that grandparents do more. The roles have changed and it’s become inappropriate. (Grandmas, you gotta love this woman’s remarkable empathy and insight!)
The program ended on a personal note with each panelist summing up her thoughts about the topic. Waite explained that she has seven grandchildren and although she works full time, she sees her role as providing help in any way that she can because these are her progeny and her arrow into the future. Shulevitz makes a point of bringing her children to visit their elderly grandparents because they have so much to share by providing cultural continuity about their history. Gianturco hopes that the grandmother power global phenomenon will muster grandmothers all over the world who are not yet activists to get involved because it will take all of us to create hope and possibilities for our children in the future.