Weighing the Grandma Factor; In Some Societies, It’s a Matter of Life and Death

Grandma, what a big and fickle metaphor you can be! For children, the name translates as ”the magnificent one with presents in her suitcase who thinks I’m a genius if I put my shoes on the right feet, and who stuffs me with cookies the moment my parents’ backs are turned.”

In news reports, to call a woman ”grandmotherly” is shorthand for ”kindly, frail, harmless, keeper of the family antimacassars, and operationally past tense.”

For anthropologists and ethnographers of yore, grandmothers were crones, an impediment to ”real” research. The renowned ethnographer Charles William Merton Hart, who in the 1920’s studied the Tiwi hunter-gatherers of Australia, described the elder females there as ”a terrible nuisance” and ”physically quite revolting” and in whose company he was distressed to find himself on occasion, yet whose activities did not merit recording or analyzing with anything like the attention he paid the men, the young women, even the children.

But for a growing number of evolutionary biologists and cultural anthropologists, grandmothers represent a key to understanding human prehistory, and the particulars of why we are as we are — slow to grow up and start breeding but remarkably fruitful once we get there, empathetic and generous as animals go, and family-focused to a degree hardly seen elsewhere in the primate order.

As a result, biologists, evolutionary anthropologists, sociologists and demographers are starting to pay more attention to grandmothers: what they did in the past, whether and how they made a difference to their families’ welfare, and what they are up to now in a sampling of cultures around the world.

At a recent international conference — the first devoted to grandmothers — researchers concluded with something approaching a consensus that grandmothers in particular, and elder female kin in general, have been an underrated source of power and sway in our evolutionary heritage. Grandmothers, they said, are in a distinctive evolutionary category. They are no longer reproductively active themselves, as older males may struggle to be, but they often have many hale years ahead of them; and as the existence of substantial proportions of older adults among even the most ”primitive” cultures indicates, such durability is nothing new.

If, over the span of human evolution, postmenopausal women have not been using their stalwart bodies for bearing babies, they very likely have been directing their considerable energies elsewhere.

Say, over the river and through the woods. It turns out that there is a reason children are perpetually yearning for the flour-dusted, mythical figure called grandma or granny or oma or abuelita. As a number of participants at the conference demonstrated, the presence or absence of a grandmother often spelled the difference in traditional subsistence cultures between life or death for the grandchildren. In fact, having a grandmother around sometimes improved a child’s prospects to a far greater extent than did the presence of a father.

Dr. Ruth Mace and Dr. Rebecca Sear of the department of anthropology at University College in London, for example, analyzed demographic information from rural Gambia that was collected from 1950 to 1974, when child mortality rates in the area were so high that even minor discrepancies in care could be all too readily tallied. The anthropologists found that for Gambian toddlers, weaned from the protective balm of breast milk but not yet possessing strength and immune vigor of their own, the presence of a grandmother cut their chances of dying in half.

”The surprising result to us was that if the father was alive or dead didn’t matter,” Dr. Mace said in a telephone interview. ”If the grandmother dies, you notice it; if the father does, you don’t.”

Importantly, this beneficent granny effect derived only from maternal grandmothers — the mother of one’s mother. The paternal grandmothers made no difference to a child’s outcome.

Dr. Donna Leonetti, an anthropologist at the University of Washington and her colleague Dr. Dilip C. Nath presented similar results from their study of two contemporary ethnic groups in northeast India, one Bengali, the other Khasi. The two groups share certain fundamental characteristics, notably a heavy workload of manual labor, low income and scant access to modern birth control methods.

But they differ in marital arrangements structure. Bengali wives move into their husbands’ households, where they are supervised by their mothers-in-law. Khasi women, by contrast, stay in their natal homes, and their husbands join them.

The researchers discovered that for Bengali and Khasi families alike, having a grandmother around increased a young woman’s overall fertility rate as compared with having no senior female on board. But the groups parted ways in the fate of the resulting offspring.

For the Bengali women, the paternal grandmother had no effect on the mortality rates of her grandchildren, with some 86 percent of children making it to age 6 whether the elder woman was there or not; while among the Khasi, 96 percent of children endured to age 6 if their maternal grandmothers were alive, compared with only 83 percent if the grandmother had died.

The researchers cannot explain what, exactly, these grand old doyennes are doing. One presumed measure of viability, a child’s growth rate, does not differ significantly between Khasi children with living grandmothers and those without.

Indeed, a number of researchers at the conference admitted to being flummoxed by the nature of grandma’s goodness.

”This was a constant refrain: what is the mechanism?” said Dr. Patricia C. Draper, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska. ”We can see that grandmothers are doing something, but what? What buttons are they pushing that end up making the difference to their families?”

Perhaps, she suggested, they exerted as much of a psychological as a practical effect — for example, by encouraging family cohesion or stifling extreme sibling rivalry.

In a couple of studies, the divergent effects of the two grandmother species is so pronounced that the son’s mother appears not merely a neutral influence on her grandchildren, but a negative one.

Dr. Cheryl Jamison, an anthropologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, and her colleagues combed through an exceptionally complete population register from a village in central Japan. The records covered a period from 1671 to 1871, when officials sought to battle the encroachment of Christianity and thus kept track of everybody’s birth, death and whereabouts, the better to interrogate citizens each year on their religious allegiance. As in the Gambian study, the overall mortality rate for children was substantial, with 27.5 children dying by age 16.

Dr. Jamison and her co-workers determined that when a maternal grandmother lived in the household, boys were 52 percent less likely to die in childhood than if there was no grandmother present. Conversely, when the father’s mother lived in the house, boys were 62 percent more likely to die than were those without a resident grandma. For girls, no statistically significant benefit or decrement could be seen from grandmothers of either bloodline.

Dr. Jamison cautioned that not too much could be made of the results, for, in a patrilineal culture like that of premodern Japan, where sons were the ones who took in their aging parents, the sample size for maternal grandmothers living with their grandchildren was extremely small compared with that of co-residing paternal grandparents and young children. Nevertheless, she said, she was startled by her results.

”One would think that boys would be preferred by everybody, but apparently that isn’t what happened here,” she said in an interview.

Why boys should be helped or harmed to a comparatively greater extent than are female children in this sample could not be gleaned from the population registry data, Dr. Jamison said.

Those researchers with a Darwinian bent propose that the discrepant effects of maternal versus paternal grandparents is a result of the old evolutionary bugaboo, paternity uncertainty. Maternal grandmothers, they reason, are confident that the grandchildren in question are their blood relations, and hence worth working for, whereas the mother of a son, ever unsure of her daughter-in-law’s fidelity, may withhold her love and care, albeit unconsciously, from the young bairns before her.

Dr. Harald A. Euler, a professor of psychology at the University of Kassel in Germany, believes that the maternal-paternal grandparent divide continues to this day and affects our affections.

He interviewed 2,000 people in Germany about their grandparents — how much care they received from the relatives, how much affection they had for each one — and then analyzed the responses of the 700 who had all four grandparents alive until age 7 or later. He found, among other results, that half the respondents cited their maternal grandmother as their favorite grandparent, while only 12 to 14 percent named the paternal grandmother.

His research, he said, has helped him come to terms with what he once thought was an inexcusable indifference on his mother’s part toward his two children, especially compared with the interest displayed by his wife’s mother.

”I thought, what a cold-hearted woman,” he said. ”Now, I don’t blame her anymore.”

Others are less quick to pin everything on biology, and offer another explanation for the comparatively salubrious effects of a maternal grandmother. Mothers overwhelmingly are the designated caretakers of children, they say, and when children need help, whose name are they going to call? Mom-my!

”It’s to be expected that a woman would turn to the person she knows best for help with the children, and that person is much likelier to be her mother than her mother-in-law,” said Dr. Martin Kohli, director of the Research Group on Aging and the Life Course at the Free University of Berlin. ”And so it is that the maternal lineage has the opportunity to make a difference.”

Dr. Kohli said a new French study of contemporary grandparenthood had found, among other things, that paternal grandparents often wanted to do more for their grandchildren, but felt they were not as welcome to visit as were the maternal grandparents.

Indeed, Dr. Kohli’s own research has revealed the degree to which grandparents on each side of the family are keen to make a difference in the lives of their descendants. Analyzing financial data in Germany and comparing it with similar investigations in the United States and France, Dr. Kohli concluded that contrary to the image of older people as a financial drain on their younger relatives, the net flow of money was practically one-directional, from the old to the young.

In 1996, for example, Germans over the age of 65 gave $3,600 more to their junior relations than they received in gifts of money or other goods. Even those seniors living on tight fixed incomes scrimped enough to give to their kin, setting aside an average of 9 percent of their government pensions to donate to their children and grandchildren, with no measurable distinction between whether they were the children of their sons or of their daughters.

”One thing is for sure, we’re not talking greedy geezers here,” Dr. Kohli said. ”The majority are quite anxious to give something, to leave something, to help their descendants.”

Who better to keep the wolf from the door than Grandma?


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