What if grandmothers were the key to a more humane and effective welfare system? That is the premise of a working paper by a British think tank, the Institute of Community Studies.
It suggests that we make a mistake by considering the family unit to be the mother and her children. This makes it more likely that immature young women will move away from the support of their families and bring up their babies on their own, with more dependence on state support. It also discourages paternal involvement.
More effective would be to recognize the central role played by the maternal grandmother, whom the Brits call Mum. It is Mum, they say, who is available for formal or informal childcare, advises young parents, even helps them find jobs. It is Mum’s house that remains the center of the extended family, creating a “network of alliances.”
These grandmothers should be recognized for the critical role that they play in the community. “To treat parents as suddenly becoming ‘childless’ when their offspring reach a certain age, as so much official thinking does, is to fail to understand family life.”
Headlines about the AIDS crisis in Africa have diminished, but orphans who have lost their parents to the disease continue to need care. This is where grandmothers have been essential.
Some 15 million African children live in households headed by their grandmothers. They bridge what has been called a missing generation. These households can have up to 10 to 15 children.
A Canadian non-profit, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, has made it a priority to support these overburdened women. And it has turned to Canadian grandmothers for help. Over the past decade, Grandmothers to Grandmothers has grown to more than 240 groups. They have raised over $21 million through bazaars, benefits, bake sales, beds without breakfasts, and beyond.
They provide support for health care, school fees, parenting and business skills, HIV awareness training, and much more. But the benefits go both ways. One Canadian group member said, “Those African grandmothers have done so much more for us Canadian ladies than they ever could imagine…”
As parents, we try so hard not to play favorites. Or, if we do, we do our best to hide our little indiscretions. But even when we are being fair, sometimes our kids will still complain that the other person is getting the piece of cake that has the most frosting, or is somehow getting the bigger slice of the pie.
Oh, you thought this would all go away just because your kids were grown up? You hoped that holiday time would be a pure delight, when old hurts flew away on the wings of little doves?
If the holiday is at your house: Who gets the better room? Who chooses the favorite meal? Or, if you are celebrating at the home of your delightful offspring: Whose house are you going to? How long are you staying? And the spooling out of it all, expressed or implied: Which grandchildren do you really love better?
My mother-in-law, at 98, musters her remaining mental capacities to address the sibling rivalry of her gray-haired children. She insists, as if no one had heard this script before, on doling out equal pieces of the (in her case theoretical) pie.
My friend whose children are only showing the first signs of gray has decided to make her own stand this holiday season. After years of bickering among her offspring about how many nights Grandma spends with each one, she has decided that this year, she will just put her feet up on her own footstool and stay happily at home.
The New York Times recently noticed that, when old folks move to be near their children, that does not necessarily mean frail elders who are themselves in need of care. For the young-old, the lure of being near their kids and grandkids is often coupled with the draw of a fun place to live, or at least to visit a lot. How smart our children are to have settled in someplace that we don’t mind being! What a great excuse to change old habits, even put the old homestead on the market.
My favorite example was a long-divorced Midwestern couple who were sharing, on an alternating basis, a Manhattan pied a terre down the block from the grandkids. Talk about civilized behavior!
During the brief period when my own kids and grandkids lived in the hipper reaches of Brooklyn, I noticed that the playgrounds were full of chic French grandmeres, as well as a regular rotation of preppy Mimis from the high net worth towns of Connecticut. Many of these visitors alight for longer and longer periods of time, learning to settle their cappuccinos into the cupholders of the citified strollers, pushing kids in playground swings with one hand while yakking on the phone with the other.
Each generation defines itself anew. What fun when we old people can enjoy some of the perks our kids have invented!
You’ve got to hand it to academics; they have a way of expressing the most basic concept in the most baroque way.
Take a recent study out of Brigham Young University. It looks at what happens when grandparents who don’t live with their grandkids are close to them, either emotionally or financially, or both. (In this study, the kids are between the ages of 10 and 14.) This closeness is called affectual solidarity. And, as we old farts could have predicted, the kids who are close to their grandparents are better off than the kids who are not. The lucky kids have what is called lower levels of emotional distress and higher levels of pro-social behavior: i.e. they are happier and they do better in school.
“This high quality emotional tie is an important microsystem influence.” Well, sure it is. By the way, this microsystem influence is important regardless of income, but seems to have more of an impact in single parent households. Uh huh. The beleaguered single parent is more likely to be stretched thin.
So here is yet another reason to keep your grandparent skills sharp and available when you are thinking about the good that you can do as you move towards, or settle firmly, into, your years of decline.
Jody Scaravella grew up in a close-knit Brooklyn-Italian family. When several relatives died within a short period, he felt unmoored. So he moved to Staten Island. Soon, a storefront near the ferry spoke to him. “Restaurant,” it whispered; “Italian family restaurant.”
He had no experience in the restaurant business, so he sent out a call for Italian housewives to help him set the recipes. What he found was a gaggle of grandmas: nonnas in Italian.
With a core group of 10, from different regions in Italy, he opened Enoteca Maria, a restaurant named after his own mother. The nonnas each hold forth one night a week. They re-create the dishes they learned to cook from their own families. It’s an enterprise that is as much about tradition and family as it is about cooking. The nonnas link the past to the future.
Scaravella’s lead-from-the-heart enterprise was an immediate success. And why not: “If I had a choice between going to a five-star restaurant and going to Grandma’s house, I’m going to Grandma’s house,” he says.
This is America, baby! We have parties. We give gifts. We may worry about who is giving what, and who might be offended (diverting attention from the mother-to-be is the most-often heard complaint) but we press on, giving gag presents, outfitting baby’s home-away-from-home, kidding the soon-to-be-grandma about her abilities and her recall.
Classic games include: baby bottle bowling, baby food taste test, dirty diaper. (This last includes chocolates, microwaves, diapers, and guessing. Please, do not ask me for more details.)
One prize that I liked was a basket of spa items. Because someone is going to need it, baby!
Listen up all you newbie grandmothers: The class will be meeting, and you will be expected to attend.
Syllabus: etiquette during labor and delivery (and where to park.)
How to clean the cord. (soap and water only; alcohol is out.)
How to work the %&*#! car seat.
How to do the swaddle. (That is a wrap for the baby; not a dance for you.)
How not to alienate your children.
You might think that, when confronted with a newborn, all your little tricks will come flooding back. A couple of hours spent at a class for your express demographic, given by your local hospital, will remind you just how flawed your memory really is. (You’re welcome.) And you will learn about advances in technology and medical science. (and etiquette.)
Technology: the %&*#! car seat. Medical science: to reduce the odds of SIDS, babies now sleep on their backs. Etiquette: Do not butt in. Do not give advice unless asked. Do not be offended if your help is not wanted in the way that you would like to give it.
Bonus: you can bring the expectant grandpa right along with you — another way that child care has changed this time around.
Sure, we know how much good we do for our grandchildren. But it’s nice to have a study from Brigham Young University that lays it all out. For fifth graders who had grandparents living near by, those who were close to them had improved social skills, like kindness and compassion, and were more engaged in school. Grandparents who helped their offspring financially, especially single parent families, were able to make a real difference in their grandchildren’s lives.
But what struck me was something that the study’s author said in explaining the results: “Grandparents are like the National Guard,” according to Jeremy Yorgason. “if there is a problem, they come in and help out.”
This makes intuitive sense. We have the special training, the experience, the tools. All we are lacking is the camo suits. We are activated in a state of emergency. We keep the peace and restore order. We represent central authority. And when it is over, we get to go home.
When Dr. Deb Walters saw women and children making their living picking through garbage dumps in Guatemala, she decided to raise money to help them improve their lives. She was inspired by the mothers of the community, and by the model school started by an American.
So the 63-year-old grandmother came up with the idea of kayaking from her home in Maine, down to Guatemala; more than 2,500 miles. Her plan was to publicize her mission along the way.
One small problem: before she started out, in July of 2014, she had had some numbness and tingling. And, with all that sitting in the kayak, the pain intensified.
So, in February 2015, she pulled up her boat in South Carolina and had emergency surgery to correct what turned out to be a massively herniated disk. Recovery from such a procedure is not exactly quick.
Walters has spent the intervening time talking about her project in the U.S., and then catching a ride on a sailboat to Guatemala, where she was honored by the community and the school.
So far she has raised more than $141,000 towards her goal of $150,000.
Her plan is to kayak the remaining 1,000 miles this coming year. But wouldn’t we all count her trip already an incredible success?