Grandma Finds Herself in a Double Bind

Blog Post 10

In ‘Through the Looking Glass’ the gnat tells Alice about the bread-and-butterfly. With wings made from thin slices of bread and butter, its body is a crust and its head is made of a lump of sugar. It lives on weak tea with cream in it.

The Bread-and-Butterfly by John Tenniel. An illustration for ‘Through the Looking Glass’ by Lewis Carroll. He used themes of fantasy word-play and logic in his writings.

Alice is perplexed at the difficulty. It loves tea, but it is always going to perish in it. If it avoids the tea the only thing it can eat, it will starve. This is known in logic as the double bind.

We can all think of double binds within the experience of being a woman and grandmother. As example of a double bind in a women’s life is this:  If a woman behaves in a feminine way, she may be liked but not respected. If she behaves in a masculine way, she may be judged and disliked. Geoffrey Bateson, used the bread-and-butterfly as an example of a double bind (he was the first husband of the anthropologist Maragaret Mead). He looked at communication in natural systems and between people and machines in cybernetics. He said everything has to keep changing, to stay the same.

I have wondered if the passing on of family history can be a double bind for a grandmother. The logical way out is called a creative imperative. That is to rise above the problem and think outside the box. It is hard with family history, because everything is connected: the now, the then, the future family. Until the Grandmother becomes history there may be little interest. When it’s too late to answer those questions, the questions are formed. We have to be creative and think of ways to engage members of the family in the now, so we create flexible bridges to their future.

As a grandmother we usually love to have contact with the family, and some of us with faraway families may stretch ourselves to host them or stay with them.  I don’t need to describe how many impossible near double binds there can be in the week or fortnight of delightful contact.

Another example is communication with grandchildren. You might agree to an exchange of letters/emails/WhatsApp texts., and say to the grandchildren: ‘Do write/communicate to me, and I will write back.’ You wait, you start, they don’t write back. If you don’t write, you maybe won’t hear at all, (which is what you most desire.) If you keep the writing going, you are going against the contract you made with them.

Of course there are some of us who have perfect families, and we congratulate them.

Money can be a bind, let alone a double bind. If you have loaned/given family money in the past it may not have gone well. Maybe it hasn’t solved the problem, or it hasn’t been paid back. If you lend them more money, you are in danger of not being repaid, and if you don’t lend them the money (you have read the advice after all), you suffer their suffering, and your own guilt. It’s all about ‘Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t’.

Let me know if you think of more double binds you have experienced in your grandmother situation.


Bateson Nora, The Ecology of the Mind: A daughter’s Portrait of her Father Geoffrey Bateson. Written and directed by Nora Bateson (Vimeo 2011).

Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking Glass (UK MacMillan Press 1871).

Costigan, Amelia, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership, Catalyst, (August 2, 2018).

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.

One thought on “Grandma Finds Herself in a Double Bind

  1. Yes I’ve read the article awhile ago about menopause and killer whales. The point about passing on family history is very valid. When I wrote up my family history as I know it up to my parents generation I wrote on the front cover to my own children, my grand children and my nieces to not be like me and wait until my parents had passed away to ask questions. Ask now now while i’m still here. Recently when I turned 70 yrs I wrote to my grandsons about some of my adventures, achievements and disappointments during my life since I turned 60. This was the decade they were born I wrote to them as young adults though. Their mum has the paper version kept in a box of memories she keeps for them.. I wanted them to have some insight into my life as it is now while they are young but to perhaps view it as an older person.


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