• Far from being a passive role, grandmothers often fulfil both emotional and practical duties in family life

  • Naomi Stadlen explores why grandmothers matter, perhaps more than most of us realise

When I first became a grandmother, I didn’t understand that it was a significant transition. I only realised how much grandmothers contribute to their societies when I was invited to write Why Grandmothers Matter. I’ll describe a little of what I found, and hope you will share my excitement, whether you are grandparent, a parent, grandchild, or all three.

Becoming a grandmother is involuntary. A woman can’t decide whether she will have a grandchild, nor when, nor how many she will have. She won’t even know that she has become a grandmother until someone tells her. She seems in a passive situation, while her family make the decisions. 

And yet, a new grandmother can feel profoundly changed. In many cultures, it enhances her status. But in the West, it often diminishes her. As a mother, she was at the hub of family life. When her daughter or daughter-in-law becomes pregnant, this younger woman will take ‘her’ place at the hub, and the grandmother may feel ousted, relegated to the periphery, no longer in the powerful position she once had. 

Does she still matter to her family? She may have the wisdom of experience, but it probably sounds dated when the new mother consults the Internet. These same concerns – it’s astonishing to discover – have troubled grandmothers since prehistoric times. A grandmother knows she will age, and no one wants to become a burden for her family. No wonder that grandmothers, past and present, have found ways of making themselves invaluable. They’re not just being kind. They need a strong role to ensure their own survival.

A doctor was recently asked how people could avoid troubling GPs with minor illnesses. She replied: ‘In families where there was a grandmother, people were less likely to go to A&E, and this applies to their family doctor as well.’ A revealing observation – this is what grandmothers have always done. In every culture, they seem to know about plants: which ones were edible, which poisonous, and which medicinal. Urban grandmothers often know homely remedies that can alleviate pain and help to deal with common illnesses.

Babies today are usually delivered by midwives and doctors. Grandmothers have lost their traditional role as birth attendants. But it’s common for daughters to turn to their mothers anyway, for emotional support. The mother’s voice may still have that special power to calm her as she experiences pregnancy, prepares to give birth, and start her new life. 

After their baby’s birth, new parents may ask the grandmothers for advice. Grandmothers are usually delighted to be thought useful, and respond with eager suggestions. Why, then, do parents hardly ever use them? Could the reason be that, although advice was what they asked for, their real need was for compassion, and reassurance from an older parent? The mother of a three-month-old confessed: ‘All you want from your own mum is for her to tell you that you’re doing all right.’ New parents seem to long for something like a blessing from the grandmother.

The gulf from being a working woman to becoming a mother has never been as wide as it is now. A schoolgirl isn’t supposed to say that she wants to mother children. It doesn’t show ‘ambition’ and isn’t ‘feminist’. So when she conceives her first baby, she enters unfamiliar territory. A grandmother can bridge the gap – especially by recalling how she had once been underconfident and inexperienced. This can show the new mother that life with her baby is manageable. 

Problems arise when a new grandmother assumes that she is not being useful enough. She may try to take charge of her newborn grandchild because the mother looks so uncertain. I used to wonder why mothers kept telling me their own mothers or mothers-in-law were ‘so interfering’. It’s only now that I see that Western grandmothers haven’t got a proper role. They have to invent their own. And they are haunted by the anxiety that they aren’t ‘giving enough’. 

One solution might be for every grandmother to celebrate her new status, and to link up with other grandmothers for mutual support. This might enable them to discover new opportunities for themselves, separate from the role of mother. 

A grandmother today usually differs from her own grandmother. She has earned her own living, and may not have retired. Many have energy to spare. Community and international peace groups are often supported by grandmothers. They have begun to realise their special power. Last June, Nahel, a French teenager of north-African descent, was tragically shot dead by a French police officer. This led to nights of violence, looting and fires throughout France. It was Nadia, Nahel’s grandmother who finally pleaded: ‘They are using Nahel as an excuse. We want things to calm down.’ Her importance as grandmother, and her brave words were reported by the media right round the world.

Most grandmothers marvel at their grandchildren. They seem quick, clever and capable. A grandchild can help the grandmother to feel young again while the grandmother gives her grandchild some insight into the bodily aspects of getting older. 

A grandmother can usually entertain her grandchild with stories, especially family stories, going back several generations. If the grandchild is interested, a whole strand of family history can open up: for example, the strange clothes of the grandmother’s generation, her childhood toys, as well as international events that intruded on family life, such as the upheavals of war. 

She transmits these intimate stories to her grandchild who inherits them. In time, the grandchild can retell them with the addition of the grandmother herself woven into the family story. It’s the grandchild who has the power to describe how she will be remembered. 

Ultimately, a grandmother may not be religious yet feel blessed to have such a wonderful grandchild. ‘Blessed’ is the word she may use to express her gratitude. Her grandchild, in turn, feels blessed by her.

This is a quick sketch of how much grandmothers do. My book Why Grandmothers Matter provides much more detail. The whole subject is fascinating.

Naomi Stadlen is the author of Why Grandmothers Matter

Further reading

Once a mother, always a mother? The challenges of parenting adult children

Your Mum and Dad: when unspoken pain is passed down the generations

Family estrangement: when parent-child bonds break

We are family: What Susan Golombok's research tells us about the nature of families