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Why grandmothers are key to familial wellbeing


Damon Young

Caring for grandchildren benefits grandparents and the children, Damon Young writes

Grandparenting is one of the oldest jobs in the world.

Grandparenting is one of the oldest jobs in the world. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

It is one of the oldest jobs in the world, and it makes a vital contribution to the modern economy - but we know very little about it, and rarely celebrate it publicly. It is that exquisite art: grandparenting.

As a new study by Professors Doreen Rosenthal and Susan Moore notes, grandmothers provide an average of 12 hours' childcare every week. Their book, New Age Nannas: Being a Grandmother in the 21st Century, reports a survey of 1200 grandmothers, aged from their 30s to early 90s.

They found that grandmothers are increasingly fit and healthy, playing important roles in their children's and grandchildren's lives. Some are still working, others are retired, but they maintain an engagement with family and the broader world, which was seemingly foreign to some previous generations.

This increased wellbeing is partly because of lifestyles, including better nutrition and increased exercise, and broader social trends like modern medicine and universal health care.

But it is also, I suspect, because of the childcare itself: the intimacy and physicality of caring for children keep us stimulated, in an active congress with the world. It can also be a salve for loneliness among those widowed or separated.

Children benefit from this arrangement, too, with grandmothers providing new kinds of play, and a living connection to the remembered past. When I was a child, my own grandmother used to tell stories of her childhood and youth in the 1920s and '30s - the Jazz Age, in which, as a pianist and band leader, she played a lively role.

The study also notes that grandmothers can be ''confidantes and wisdom-givers'' - close enough to observe and sympathise, but distanced enough to provide welcome counsel.

There are also the ever-present treats: chocolate sandwiches, Dora dolls, apocalyptic mud play. These can frustrate parents, but are often more harmless than they seem. They give welcome but hopefully brief respite from parental austerity - the momentary transgressions that help maintain the taboos.

In other words, the involvement of nannas and grandmas is, at its best, reciprocally vital: healthy for parents, children and grandparents alike. Rosenthal and Moore have not yet published research on grandfathers, who have traditionally played less of an immediate role in care-giving. But with the right attitude and opportunities, they are equally capable of contributing to familial wellbeing.

Perhaps the most unnoticed benefit of this generational intermingling is its existential revelation: it shows grandparents as whole human beings, not quiet exiles from the adult world.

In all families, there is the danger that people become symbols: cooking and cleaning mother, the providing father, the quaint, archaic nanna. ''I loved my grandparents, but they seemed very old - certainly for as long as I remember them, they were stereotypically old,'' Professor Rosenthal told Melbourne University's Voice lift-out.

''Neither they nor their friends drove. The women didn't work outside the home.'' There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. But it can lead to an unnecessary distance between generations. The psyche's subtle inner universe can become a more limited persona or role.

But as grandmothers spend more hours with their grandchildren, many kids will be given an important opportunity: to see their nannas and grandmas in all their subtlety and vivacity; with their variable moods, ideas, memories. They may not notice this at first, but over the decades, this will provide a valuable corrective to the myth that older generations are just faded sepia versions of real human beings.

And this is not only valuable for children. Parents get to rediscover their own mothers and fathers as caregivers, and reflect on their impressions of childhood. This enriches memory, and offers clarifying contrasts with familiar habits. And the grandmothers, meanwhile, can redefine themselves as child-rearers: a new, mindful balance of proximity and detachment. Often more educated and professional than their predecessors, the ''new-age nannas'' can combine public achievement with domestic finesse, and hopefully the ripe wisdom of age.

Sadly, because of events like death, distance and divorce, not all families can experience these transformations. But it is worth recognising and celebrating nonetheless: the ancient, and very modern, grandparental vocation.

Dr Damon Young is a philosopher, and the author of Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free.



  • I have to disagree with this article. Grandparents should be able to spoil their grandchildren rotten, then give them back to their parents. When a grandparent looks after the grandchild for around 40 hours a week, the relationship changes - the grandparent has to become the disciplinarian, and I'm not convinced that that's a good thing.
    I suspect the person who wrote this article isn't a grandparent.

    Date and time
    April 16, 2012, 2:58PM
    • Nowhere did the article say 40 hours per week. It said the study showed grandparents looked after their grandchildren for an average of 12 hours per week -- that's less than two full-time days.
      It's sad that some grandparents don't want a responsible role in raising their grandchildren. Most, however, it seems would agree wholeheartedly with this article.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 8:28PM
  • I noticed a few things before reading the article 1) the writer is a male and 2) he wrote a book about 'being free'. So ... who gave him the right to define how grandmothers manage their lives now? I was 37 when I became a grandmother - having already made it quite clear to my children that I would not be available to care for their off-spring while they returned to work. End of story! I do care for grandkids are arranged for (and booked well in advance ) for special events. But I am in my early 50s so still working, going to community events and activities and holidays with my husband. My grandparents (very traditional grandparents who lived within 35kms) didn't babysit their grandkids either so perhaps this is a family tradition, as my own Mum didn't care for my children either. However, I prefer to consider this as a mark of respect from all involved parties - in that although we have daily contact (phone, facebook, email etc) and see each other often (I have 5 off-spring, all parents now) we have clear lines regarding the limit of my involvement in their lives. The oldest of my grandchildren are in their teens now and our system still working so we'll stick to it. How about a grandmother write how it really is for grandmas in contemporary society?

    Granny of Bunbury
    Date and time
    April 16, 2012, 4:14PM
    • Some people are just too tight-fisted to pay for childcare. When I go to the shops I see a lot of exhausted looking grandparents trying to cope with young toddlers. Caring for grandchildren forty hours a week is a huge ask. A lot of those children would be better off in childcare where they could benefit from the company of other children. My neighbour is 71 and cares for her grandchildren two days a week. It's her choice to do it, she enjoys it, but she says the two days a week is quite enough thanks. I agree with Noodles-grandparents should be able to spoil the grandchildren rotten and then hand them back.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 4:52PM
      • It's interesting how many grandparents leading busy lives have no interest at all in their grandchildren or spending time with them. Somewhere along the line a number of grandparents have decided that unpaid work such as assisting with grandchildren has become completely valueless. It's very sad, but it's the attitude my friends and I have encountered with our parents.

        Date and time
        April 16, 2012, 5:33PM
        • How sad Granny of Bunbury's comments are. It sounds like a wonderful family history of "every person for themselves" is being passed along. I'm sure your grandchildren will impose the same attitude when you are too old to look after yourself and need to be driven to doctors appointments or looked after. What a shame you seem unaware of the legacy you are creating.

          Date and time
          April 20, 2012, 12:23PM
          Comments are now closed

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