When she smiles, the lines in her face become epic narratives that trace the stories of generations that no book can replace. ― Curtis Tyrone Jones
When I look back on my fondest childhood memories, there are a few that always surface. Standing on a chair in the kitchen next to my Nana as she teaches me to make pikelets; I wait till her back is turned before slyly dunking my finger in the mixture. Watching avidly as she tells me tales that her grandmother shared with her. And excitedly showing her the latest issue of my weekly newspaper ‘The Daily Llama’ – she’s the biggest (and only) fan.
When I was older and came to terms with the fact that ‘The Daily Llama’ was never going to be a success, I cherished long chats with Nana after school as I plonked myself on the carpet next to her rocking chair. She shared her wisdom, her humour, and her humility with me. Of course, all these things were vehicles for her unconditional love.
With both my parents working full-time, my grandparents played an important role in my upbringing. While not every family has this dynamic (there is no right or wrong), science is beginning to show that grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, have played a crucial role in human evolution and most importantly, how we connect with each other.
Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have been questioning the reason for women to go through menopause, a stage in life that we do not share with other primates. After all, wouldn’t it be better for the species if women were able to continue bearing children for the entirety of their lives? Men can procreate for as long as they can rise to the occasion.
The ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’ argues that the role of grandmothers in society helps shape who we are.
The Grandmother Hypothesis
Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, is the lead researcher who looked into this hypothesis in a study published in the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society and says they found grandmothers have helped us develop an array of social capacities. This includes those that are “the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.”
Young people need something stable to hang on to — a culture connection, a sense of their own past, a hope for their own future. Most of all, they need what grandparents can give them. —Jay Kesler
The study, which was undertaken with mathematical biologist Peter Kim and anthropologist James Coxworth, used computer simulations to see the effect of menopause on hypothetical primates. Spanning 60,000 years, the researchers made the hypothetical subjects evolve to live into their sixties and seventies (decades past their fertile years). Eventually, forty-three percent of the mature female primates were grandmothers.
Grannies for Survival
From a survival perspective, the researchers suggested that if a mother has help with multiple children, larger families become more viable. They found that grandmothers can assist families by acting as supplementary caregivers, and also help with the collection of food.
However, the researchers also argued that the social relations which go along with grandmothering have created many uniquely human traits.
As other primates have only one child they are responsible for at any one time, the mother can dedicate her whole attention to that baby. However, humans often have multiple children. With many mums juggling crying babies, toddlers throwing tantrums, and hungry children all at once, help is sometimes necessary to keep family life running smoothly. Traditionally grandmothers, with their wisdom and parenting experience, have stepped up to this role and provided attention to older children while the mum looks after the baby. Evolving with this kind of support has provided humans with the opportunity to become more socially aware and connected with each other.
“Grandmothering gave us the kind of upbringing that made us more dependent on each other socially and prone to engage each other’s attention,” Hawkes says.
The study acknowledged that, of course, in the real world many mothers get help from other sources, such as fathers and older siblings. But grandmothers are unique in the sense that they have often, but not always, already been a mother. They are qualified for the job without the distractions of youth and the sometimes dominant hormonal drivers.
Becoming a grandmother is wonderful. One moment you’re just a mother. The next you are all-wise and prehistoric. — Pam Brown
Indigenous Views of Grandmothers
This research sits alongside long respected indigenous views of elders and grandparents. Indigenous cultures around the world view elders as the cornerstones of society and family life. As the Australian Institute of Family Studies summarises, in Aboriginal culture, elderly family and community members are respected for a variety of reasons including “their narrative historical value, where testimonies about the Dreaming and daily community life help others to understand the practical aspects of life and society.”
The very old and the very young have something in common that makes it right that they should be left alone together. Dawn and sunset see stars shining in a blue sky. ― Elizabeth Goudge
I’m incredibly grateful that growing up, I was able to form strong bonds with my grandparents and create cherished memories with them. Now when I sit with my Nana, who is mostly housebound, it is me who tells the tales – she enjoys the insight into my life and the modern world which still seems foreign to her. Yet, I know it is her wisdom, love, and dedication that made me into the woman I am today. She is running through my veins, my neural pathways, and dances in the chambers of my heart. I feel blessed to be able to teach that intimate and unique choreography to my children when they arrive. My greatest wish would be for my grandmother to become a great-grandmother … together with my mother, we can all teach the nostalgic dances of yesteryear to our children of today.
Have you cherished memories with grandparents or other older caregivers? Perhaps you are a grandparent yourself? We would love to hear your stories and insights in the comments below.