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New book ‘Grandmothering’ on why women live decades past menopause

(Unsplash, Marissa Price)

If you asked someone to draw a grandmother, chances are they’d draw a woman who looks like the Old Maid. A gray bun, an apron; I might even throw in some hard candies. But that is not what most modern grandmothers look like. Developmental psychologist, Bronx Community College professor and grandmother, Dr. Kathleen Stassen Berger, wrote the new book, Grandmothering: Building Strong Ties with Every Generation about the role of the grandmother.

When I received a pitch for the book, there was one specific thing that drew me in: the evolutionary role grandmothers play in human families.

“For a long time biologists have been puzzled that women have menopause at about age 50, can no longer have children, and yet live 30 more years,” Dr. Berger said. “Every other mammal, except for elephants and whales, has menopause and then dies within a year. What our culture needs is somebody who is no longer bearing children but able to take care of them. It’s called the Grandmother Hypothesis but it’s no longer a hypothesis; it’s been proven. Notice that human males don’t do this. Human males can conceive children even when they’re 80. So it’s very interesting, it’s just a grandmother hypothesis.”

Long ago, grandmothers played a crucial role in furthering humankind, as midwives who helped their daughters birth the next generation. But today they play an important emotional role in the lives of their children and grandchildren.

“Grandmothers, genetically, and in terms of age, tend to be more patient, more optimistic. Most important, I think, is somebody who really listens to the child and the young adult. One of the fascinating hormones that people have is oxytocin. I do think that one of the reasons grandmothers are so taken by grandchildren is this hormone just zaps them into caring for this younger generation.”

Advice columns are full of letters from parents who aren’t happy about an intrusive grandmother. A grandmother who defies their parenting style and offers too much unsolicited advice. Dr. Berger addresses this in the book.

“I want grandmothers to know that their main job is to support the family, not to correct the parents. If they do, they become a problem rather than an asset. I think about husbands and wives: they disagree on how to raise the children and ideally they talk to each other and say, ‘Ok, we’ll do this.’ That’s what grandmothers should do, too.”

To support her daughter, Dr. Berger picks up two of her grandchildren every day from school and takes them to the playground. But she also values that daily connection where she can fill a role in their lives that only a grandmother figure can fill.

“I listen well, I repeat what they say, I try to get interested in what they’re interested in, which is not always easy. Minecraft, for instance, is beyond me but I’m trying. My youngest grandchild likes to watch Pink Panther. I don’t like Pink Panther, but I sometimes watch with him.”

She’d like to see the media and children’s books, change the way they present and portray grandmothers, which is often as uneducated homemakers.

“Right now, in the United States, most women become grandmothers at age 50. Most 50-year-old women have jobs, they work. Books, on the other hand, picture grandmothers as older women with no jobs, in the kitchen with their hair in a bun. That is not your typical 50-year-old woman in this culture, at all! Now, maybe at 70, but still. Grandmothers are much more alive and well and nurturing and well-groomed than the pictures in the books.”

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