As fond as we may be of our grandmothers, evolutionary biologists have long questioned why women live for so long after they can procreate. The so-called “grandmother hypothesis” posits that grandmothers help the species survive by taking care of grandchildren and helping support families. In the U.S., grandparents are the primary source of child care for a third of families with a working mother and young children. We discuss the role of grandmothers in the U.S. and globally. What role did your grandmother play in your life? If you’re a grandmother, does your family rely on your labor? How do you feel about it?

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"

  • thucy

    What do Grandmas do? They do intrigue! (No Nonna, no imbroglio!) And, if you’re really lucky, they’ll throw in a “clash of civilizations” tantrum at the engagement party.

    Seriously, Ms Shulevitz, it’s a really nice idea that there’s a tidy evolutionary explanation for everything, but then how do you explain Grandma Jocasta, Grandma Medici or Grandma Empress Dowager? It’s only fair: If men are often inexplicably without evident purpose, so must women be, too. Did it ever occur to Shulevitz that some women live a long time just to take revenge on the ungrateful children they reluctantly gave birth to? Is Ms. Shulevitz aware that most of us are the result of thousands upon thousands of years of women not having an option to be childless? Let alone not having the right to deny sex to their husbands or an invading soldier?
    What’s the line John Cheever’s grandmother hisses at her grown children while totally loaded at a family reunion at the vineyard? I think it’s something like, “In my next life, I’m only going to have talented, intelligent children.” In MY next life, journalists will report what researchers can’t say for fear of having their grants cut off: Everything we conclude is based largely on our own clueless, class-based myopia. Voila: Shulevitz.

  • Taia Ergueta

    I am writing a book on the wisdom of poor mothers: The
    wisdom, the impact, how to build those capabilities in other mothers to change
    lives and society. What organizations have done researched what it is that exceptional, transformational grandmothers do and then propagating that to other grandmothers?

  • theresa

    My grandmother helped raise me and I lived with her later when she needed help. My mother dies young and the grandparents stepped in to help us.

  • Quincy

    The role of grandmothers is not limited to their own personal progeny. Post-reproductive life exists, and is in fact required by our society to fully transmit our very complex culture. Grandmothers can be, should be, major players in politics.

    • thucy

      I’m so glad you wrote that – I think the show’s topic excluded (in an unconsciously very sexist way) the contributions that older women can make, independent of whether they had children or not! Thereby totally marginalizing older women who made the decision not to put more people on a planet with dwindling resources.

  • thucy

    Great caller pointing out the elephant in the room – exploited grandmothers.
    I’ve seen too manny grannies collapse from heat exhaustion because kids are too cheap or broke to have childcare

  • What a rich and fascinating discussion about the complex and important role grandparents play in the world today. I hope you’ll come over to the GaGa Sisterhood ( and share your thoughts about what it means to be a grandma today.

  • Smitha

    “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy,”

    A lot of grandparents spoil their children by taking care of their grandchildren and hence parents are taking advantage of it and ignoring their responsibilities. I think parents ought to be responsible for their children and it’s not a grandparent’s duty to substitute for a child care. I feel there’s a lot of irresponsibility among parents and over indulgence by grandparents. I’ve also noticed a lot of grandparents have lost a motive if they don’t have grandchildren to worry about and hence force themselves into a life of baby sitting their grandchildren.

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    In our family Grandmothers get respect and are much like The Waltons, because three generations live together, and Grandmother teaches, guides the grandchild(ren) and impart values, morals which the parents also impart.

    Grandmothers and Grandfathers are often wise souls who also help parents in instilling good values that get passed down to the next generation.

    Have such fond memories of my maternal Grandmother living with us, and taking care of me after school or when sick. Also know that needing your Grandmother also gives value to the elders.

    Show me a child who has an active Grandmother in their life and you will often find children who grow up knowing how to cook, grow a garden and other valuable life skills

  • Ajoy Bhatia

    I find this whole discussion totally ridiculous. Perhaps, it is reflective of the pathetic way that the older generation is treated here. Dave said that what comes to mind when one thinks of grandmothers is a warm touch, but now increasingly, they are associated with something else – childcare. What balderdash! What about love? It is the same warm touch that can be viewed as loving or as “childcare”. Grandparents live with their adult children and grandchildren because they are family, and that is their home. First, we start pushing them out of their homes and into senior care centers. This gives rise to the childcare industry. Now, the situation is such that grandparents living in their rightful home are seen as “domestic help” and “childcare providers”. Words cannot begin to describe my rage at this treatment of the generation that put their heart and soul into raising us. Next thing I know, someone will be claiming that stay-at-home mothers provide childcare for their children and, for very young children, some even provide breastfeeding “services”. Is this the level of commercialization that our society has stooped to?

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