The role of grandmother is a feminist issue!

It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only grandmother who resents the role of the nannie. In Grandparent Backlash: We are nannas not nannies, Rebecca Sparrow writes:  ‘Thousands of grandparents are fed up with being used as a ‘dumping ground’ (OUCH)  for their grandkids while their adult kids head out to work.’

The media portrayal of the grandmother is that of an elderly woman with time on her hands. Having reared her own family she now looks eagerly to her time spent with her grandchildren.

But this passive role of the grandmother is changing with nearly 300,000 Australians aged between 50 and 74 caring for their grandchildren, with a third of these also employed in paid work, according to National Seniors Australia.

New Age Nanas : Being a Grandmother in the 21st Century is a new book written by Doreen Rosenthal & Susan Moore. The authors, both semi-retired social scientists and grandmothers decided to conduct research on today’s grandmothers. They interviewed 1205 grandmothers – the average age was 63 years. The interviewees were mostly well-educated, happy, healthy, English-speaking, working part-time and partnered. Overall the experiences of the grandmothers were positive-the arrival of a grandchild regarded as ‘a magical love’ and one which for most of them was an experience which far outweighed any of the ‘anticipated downsides’.

Connie Clarke from the West Australian writes : ‘Today’s grandparents are rolling up their sleeves, ready to help modern families cope with the demands of working and raising children.’ Clarke quotes Parenting Centre WA manager Carmel Wilkinson who says the trend towards more involved grandparents is a direct reflection of the current economic climate, where both parents need to work to make ends meet. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than a quarter (26 per cent) of children are now cared for by their grandparents on a regular basis. In 2011, that equated to 936,999 children aged up to 12 with grandmothers more likely to perform childcare duties daily or several times a week – a heavy load for women who may still be in the workforce themselves.

Robyn Barker author of Baby Love  claims that while she is happy to  look after her grandchildren- she won’t double as a nanny while parents go off to work. Barker suggests that using grandparents as a regular childcare option is a slippery slope to blatant exploitation and believes that there is some resentment among grandmothers: “It’s a huge commitment when you’re doing even one day a week … we really don’t have the physical and emotional strength we had when we were raising our own children. A day with a toddler is a very long day.”

The acceptance of the normality of the caring role of grandmothers  is interesting, for according to Cherry Russell writing in Ageing as a Feminist Issue, grandmothering is a relatively recent phenomenon, ‘resulting from increased female longevity.’ In pre-industrial western Europe, a woman’s life span overlapped with her first grandchild by only four years; by 1900 the average overlap had risen to 12 years. Russell suggests that this major change in family relationships, as well as in female old age, ‘has been obscured by the assumption that somehow grandmothers are a pleasantly vague constant of history’.

Grandmothers care for their grandchildren, they help with household chores and often have adult children still living at home for whom they also care. The image is typically of the fulfilled old woman but in reality this so-called fulfilment ‘is achieved only through perpetual work for others.’

In Outside the Sisterhood: Ageism in Women’s Studies, author Barbara McDonald calls on the women’s movement to understand that ageism is a feminist issue:

‘We are not your mothers, your grandmothers, or your aunts. And we will never build a true women’s movement until we can organize together as equals, woman to woman, without the burden of these family roles -Mother, Grandmother, Aunt.’ Ageism, she points out has its roots in patriarchal family. McDonald asserts that ‘mainstream feminists have bought the idea that as long as a woman has a career then the family ‘is a safe and wholesome place to be’.

Mc Donald’s analysis continues:

‘It was in patriarchal family that you learned that mother is there to serve you, her child, that serving you is her purpose in life. This is not woman’s definition of motherhood. This is man’s definition of motherhood, a male myth enforced in family and which you still believe – to your peril and mine. It infantilises you and it erases me.’

‘The old woman is at the other end of that motherhood myth. She has no personhood, no desires or value of her own. She must not fight for her own issues – if she fights at all, it must be for “future generations.” Her greatest joy is seen as giving all to her grandchildren. And to the extent that she no longer directly serves a man – can no longer produce his children, is no longer sexually desirable to men – she is erased more completely as grandmother than she was as mother’.

To all the so-called ‘new-age nanas’ let us not be erased. Let us understand how we are being manipulated by the patriarchal state. Too many of us are willing and cheap babysitters tending to babies as our adult children work and consume keeping the wheels of patriarchal capitalism grinding on and on.

Categories: feminism, grandmothers, women's writing, womens rights

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