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The Millennium Grandmother

By Jill Curtis

Long gone is the image of the old woman wearing a little lace cap and shawl, sitting by the fireside knitting with gnarled fingers, and handing out tidbits of advice. But what picture do we have to put in its place when we think of a grandmother today? With women flying high in many professions, with retraining and second careers, and 'back to work' campaigns, what are the characteristics of the grandmothers, today and tomorrow?

A woman who has worked outside of the home, or who has trained at a later stage in life for a career, may be near the top of her professional tree when the news is sprung that she is about to be a grandmother. Or she may be enjoying new found interests and hobbies denied to her when bringing up a family. It is a moment for both the mother-to-be and the grandparent-to-be to think how she is going to fit in with the new arrival. There will be choices to make.

When researching my books on families, I spoke to hundreds of grandmothers in all walks of life. A strong feeling of commitment to grandchildren always shone through. Perhaps getting older means we need confirmation that life does go on, and seeing our children's children gives us a sense of purpose and meaning to life?

Of course, hopefully grandparents have always been on hand to help out when there is a family crisis, but the rise in the number of divorces and broken families has had an impact on the extended family. I know from my own family experience how the breakup of a family affects not only the couple and their children, but the family at large. There has also been an increase in the number of ‘second generation' parents - where grandparents have had to step in to parent the grandchildren. This has often meant great sacrifices. Loss of retirement plans and dreams is only a part of this.
    Lily: ‘My son divorced his wife, and she didn't want their little boy, and he couldn't cope so we took John in and became his parents. My son needed to make a new life for himself. It wasn't the retirement we had imagined.'
Hearts are certainly broken when a disruption in the family - possibly a divorce or death - means alienation and even loss of a grandchild.

    Hannah: ‘One year a happy family Christmas, then a divorce, and my wonderful grandchildren taken to Australia by their mother. We have no contact at all now.'
On the other hand, careers were given up at a stroke when a grandmother had to step in to be more than just a loving grandparent.
    Maureen: ‘I trained as a very mature student to become a social worker. I had a job I loved. Then the phone rang in the middle of the night - we had gone to bed grandparents, but were woken to the news that our daughter and her husband had been killed. There were two bereaved children waiting for us to pick them up. Within a month I had given up my job. I took on the full-time job of being a parent again.'
The image we have of a grandmother is, of course, coloured by the experience we had as a child - and in my work as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, I hear a great deal about the importance of grandparents in children's lives. My own grandmother was very influential in my upbringing. With a father away fighting in the war my mother and I moved back home to be with my grandparents, and it was my grandmother who instilled in me a love of gardening, singing, and my head is still full of the ‘old wives' tales' of which she had a surprising number. Years on I can still hear her voice warning me to avoid vinegar at all costs because of the danger of it drying up my blood!

When I first knew I was going to be a grandma I felt as if a light bulb had been switched on inside of me. Ah ha! That was what I was always meant to be! It felt so right. And yet I have had to juggle the demands of a job with the delight of being with my grandchildren.

Many young parents are amazed to see their own parents who for them were uncaring or restrictive, turning into the most devoted grandparents. The collective voice of the grandparents I spoke with justified this in several ways: ‘I have more time than I did when I was a young busy mother' ‘I know now how quickly it all flashes by - I want to spend time with them whilst they are little' ‘I have a second chance, I am going to take it and be with the kids and enjoy them.' And ‘I want to tell them tales about when I was a child. It passes on a sense of history.'

So, is the grandma with the short skirt and a laptop, or golf clubs, really any different from the little old woman in the lace cap? I think not. Better health care, yes. Better nutrition, beauty care, and a longer life span, certainly. Perhaps not the same need to knit for the baby, but babies are old-fashioned things and ‘granny's wisdom' and love is something that can and should be valued. There is a special magic which passes between generations. If you have a child, or if you are about to make your mother or mother-in-law a grandmother take a moment or two to talk over with her how you see her fitting in. Perhaps with so much advice available through the media - and with the Internet to chat on - there is not quite so much need to ask for advice about day to day care, but, and the ‘but' is important, there is a bond which is like no other. Go with it. You will earn the undying gratitude of the older and younger generations. Grandma might come from a board meeting, but you can be sure there will be photographs of her grandkids in her brief case.

The Millennium Grandmother is no different from her own grandmother or even great-grandmother when it comes to boasting about the amazing children - and grandchildren - that she has.

Jill Curtis is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author of "Making and Breaking Families" and "Where's Daddy?".

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