A Grandmother Riddle

Blog Post 4th July  

This is a detailed pencil sketch of a gateway on my parents farm in Cornwall. A Tin mine stack is on the top right. The gateway has the hand made wooden gate I watched being made in the 60s by a man who came to the farm with his tools, then a newer metal one to offer support to the old wooden one when is wasn’t strong enough to keep out the cattle on its own. (If I had been clever enough to draw this I might not have placed one of the cows touching the gate making it look tiny).

Q: When is a woman like a butterfly? 
A: When she is a Gatekeeper? 

How do butterflies and gates come into the grandmother story?

Let me explain. 

To protect his sheep the shepherd lies across the entrance of the fold, the gateway, where he will be woken by anything that threatens his animals. 
Gatekeeper was the term for the man at the gate of a medieval town making sure undesirables were kept out and tolls were paid. A common brown butterfly seen fluttering around English hedgerows and gateways was given the name of ‘The Gatekeeper’.

 In a society or within a culture, the term ‘Gatekeeper’ refers to a person who takes it upon themselves to supervise access, to a community, or a culture. They have the contacts, the information and it gives them control. (Schoppe-Sullivan, Sarah, et al.) In families it is often that women, and in particular mothers who are ‘kin keepers’. They keep in touch, they organise, remember, celebrate, wrap, protect, send.  (Rosenthal 1985) It is a valuable role, and families benefit from it. By being protected and supported by layers of family, children are able to establish a sense of who they are. The behaviour is called family gatekeeping. Partly it benefits the children, but to some extent the whole family. 

I suggest that when we are mothers, we don’t realise we are gatekeeping when we make choices. It’s our ‘modus operandi’ to encourage/expect/discourage our partners to help with around the house ( Chan and Elder: 2000 ) encourage/discourage/take for granted, gender stereotypical activities.  We as mothers make decisions about where the family is to spend Christmas, where we will live, what hobbies the children are encouraged to do? Whose family stories are told?  Where to go on holiday, and what cousins to keep in touch with. I mean someone has to decide, right?  

With hindsight, I can see that these decisions not only affected our children but also the grandparents in different ways. Sometimes what we think is fair, the best for the family, is best for our maternal side. Those activities and behaviours can turn out to be less convenient or considerate to the paternal family. 
I remember enjoying Christmas with my family more, the greetings, the way Father Christmas was explained, the rituals, the food, even the way the table was laid. it all seemed somehow more ‘right’ than the in-law’s way. Consequently our children learned more of the ways of my childhood than his. I didn’t dislike my in-laws, and the children knew them well, but I can see that when ‘push came to shove’, my choices favoured my side of the family.
Now my own children have partnered, and I am a grandmother and a mother in law, I see the new generation of women lying across the gateway of their families, and quite right too. My gatekeeping days are in the past. Decisions sometimes go against me. I am no longer the one who gets to decide. Those little gatekeeper butterflies are coming home to roost. 


Schoppe-Sullivan, Sarah, Who are the Gatekeepers? Predictors of Maternal Gatekeepers. Department of Human Sciences, The Ohio State University.

Chan, Christopher, G, Elder, Glen H, Matrilinear Advantage in Grandchild – Grandparent Relations (The Gerontologist vol. 40, no. 2, 179-190 (2000).

Rosenthal, Carolyn, J, Kinkeeping in the Familial Division of Labor, Journal of Marriage and Family, (National Council on Family Relations, 1985).

Published by marycane

A PhD student at the Elphinstone Institute Aberdeen Scotland. I am studying the experience of being a contemporary grandmother. In particular I am interested in how those grandmothers, whose family live far away, are passing on their family history.

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