The Importance of Being Grandma (or any other caregiver)

Mom and kay
My Mom, who passed away 4 years ago next week, helps her granddaughter learn to tell time with an analog watch.

When a young woman is burdened with a suckling infant and cannot fend for her family, she turns for support, not to her mate, but to a senior female relative — her mother, an aunt, an elder cousin. It is Grandma, or Grandma-proxy, who keeps the woman’s other children in baobab and berries, Grandma who keeps them alive. She is not a sentiment, she is a requirement. Kristen Hawkes, grandmother expert

My maternal Granny was the ultimate fountain of love and homemaking. She taught me to knit and crochet and bake from scratch. She loved to treat me with my favorite foods such as radish roses (just a regular radish wasn’t special enough) and cheesecake. She adopted puppies and kittens, fed the birds, and snuggled babies. My dad’s mother was adventurous and traveled and loved to learn new things. She had a supply of brain enhancing puzzles and toys and took me to museums and historical sites. She was quick to buy me things to expand my horizons such as lovely rocks (accompanied by a sheet of scientifically accurate information). Both lived long happy lives after their child raising years had ended and had a profound affect on me.

Many scientists have asked the question “Why do humans have menopause?” The very long postmenopausal lifetime is something unique to human females. In the plant and animal kingdoms, success is measured by how many offspring you can create so why do humans have a built in “stop” mechanism? Perhaps it’s because there’s more to life or at least to human life than just numbers. To love and to care and inspire is just as important.

Less is more. Less children of your own means a greater ability to take care of grandchildren and other youngsters you might love. Grandmothers allow their adult children to function and be better, less frazzled parents. There appears to be an advantage to having no young children when your own children begin to have children.

Chimps do not undergo early menopause and they have a survival rate to age 40 of just 7% in the wild! Not only do chimp babies have a poor survival rate, once childbearing is over adult chimps go down hill rather quickly. Compare this with humans who have a 70- 90% chance of surviving infancy no matter how harsh the conditions followed by an up to 40% chance of living to 90 after that!

Motherhood expert Sarah Hrdy noted that human babies require many calories, much attention, and a variety of caregivers. Mothers can’t do it alone—they need alloparents, including friends, aunts, teachers, and grandparents. Grandparents take better care of their grandchildren than the parents do. Kids who are cared for by grandparents have fewer injuries than kids cared for by parents. Children who have many “parents” also develop better empathy and the ability to see the world from multiple vantage points.

Historians looking at birth and death records from 1720-1874 found that having a living maternal grandmother halved the risk of dying as a baby back in the days before modern medicine. Studies of other cultures show that grandmas have very important roles in society: watching babies, guarding crops from predators, and carrying baskets and bundles. In fact old women appear to keep up with young women in tasks requiring physical activity.

Pressures of modern life can increase postnatal depression and grandmothers can help keep this away. New mothers feel a sudden loss of freedom and miss connections with friends and co-workers. Yet figuring out what to do with baby if mom needs to go out causes anxiety too. Even in the laboratory, if a mother rat feels she cannot control what happens to her babies she will become depressed! In the human world we have Grandma to the rescue. Parents can go out and leave baby with a known commodity. In fact, if your own mother can’t be with you after your baby is born, health care professionals now suggest hiring a post partum doula to act as a stand in mother to keep those baby blues away.

When I had my first child, I surprised myself. I left a high paying job for one with half the salary and moved across the country to be near my mother. Many times I’ve questioned my sanity about this decision. Now I understand that my actions were perfectly normal.

Mom and Ro
Mom and a great-grandchild delight in each other’s company. Interactions with many caregivers can help boost empathy in children.


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