Rethinking grandmothers



Defying the myth of ‘little old ladies’, grandmothers come in all shapes and sizes.

They are often not so little, there’s no guarantee of ‘ladyhood’ and ‘old’ is arguable at the best of times.

They get mainly poor press, although a recent headline about Nancy Pelosi – Grandma nearly starts World War 3 – straddled both good and bad.

That’s because it’s funny, but then it’s not.

It’s worth unpacking why.

It’s funny because our immediate assumptions are that a grandma actually couldn’t start much at all, let alone a world war. A grandmother doesn’t have a lot of power or agency – right?

Therein lies the joke.

It makes for a great headline, but it’s not funny as it displays such a poor understanding of who and what today’s grandmothers look like and the values and energy they represent.

A recent conversation with my friend Keryn highlighted to me the shift in grandma dynamics.

And first, an apology to all the grandmothers who have gone before. Dynamic grandmothers aren’t all that new – but they are changing the dialogue as we speak.

Keryn became a grandmother a year ago when she was 67. Earlier this year she decided to retire from her part-time role in a fine arts dealership. She loved her job, but in the wake of the birth of baby Florence, she quit. She had had a conversation with a friend who, unlike most others, was encouraging Keryn’s decision to step back from the work place in order to have more time with her granddaughter.

‘The role of grandmothers is largely underrated,’ her friend told her. ‘So are the rewards. I doubt you will regret this decision for one minute.’

That reminded me that 30 plus years ago, my then 60-something mother would catch a bus, train and tram once a week to spend the day with our daughters so that I could continue to study at university.

She loved it. They loved it. I loved it.

The world turned a little more easily and to this day both those girls have a strong, enduring connection with their (now) 95-year-old grandmother.

That’s the ‘mothering’ aspect of grandmothers.

But as Pelosi demonstrates, there’s so much more. All around we can see these engaged, intelligent, capable women fulfilling many other roles; demanding better environmental practices, challenging inequitable legislation, speaking up for the rights of refugees, taking the reins as CEOs of multinational companies, revealing corruption and speaking truth to power.

These women are far from the little old lady model and through their actions and examples they are paving the way for other generations of women. Firstly as role models who just won’t ever sit down and shut up.

And also, like Keryn, as enablers who share an understanding of, and support for, their adult daughters, daughters-in-law, nieces and others, as they struggle with the daily tribulations of work and family commitments.

New age grandmothers don’t even have to be related to serve younger women in this way – so many do it through their community networks and volunteering outlets.

Nancy Pelosi and my friend Keryn are poles apart in their life experience and daily activities.

But they are joined at the hip when it comes to their vigorous engagement on behalf their families and wider community. The word ‘grand’ is a hint about the size of their hearts and their agency. They both seem to have a store of unconditional love and a determination to keep giving to future generations.

Never underestimate a grandmother. They are an unstoppable force for good – committed, stubborn and loving to the very end.