Looking at the historic, social, and family issues of the contemporary grandmother experience.
‘Grandmothers are not just for Christmas.’
When my parents were in their eighties, my husband Chris and I, took them on holidays, to places we knew would intrigue them. They were farmers and had always been interested in local heritage, family histories and the industrial archaeology of Cornwall where they lived. I remember excursions from my childhood, that would typically involve a holy well, a moorland stone circle or the source of a river. In the seventies, Mum and Dad helped to create the their local history centre and took their turn to be on duty there. It wasn’t unusual for Dad to point visitors from Canada or Australia looking for relatives, to their cousins. He knew who had married whom, back in the thirties and forties.
In their old age they were delighted to be taken away from Cornwall, to visit Ely Cathedral, Lindisfarne, Iona, Orkney, and the Hebrides. Their enthusiasm was catching, and those subjects previously associated with my childhood sulks, came alive for me.
In a way, it feels as if they are accompanying me now, while I research the subject of folklore and in particular the experience of being a grandmother. During this reading and writing journey I am finding them more co-operative now, than they were in real life.
If you would like to join the three of us on this ethnological journey you would be very welcome. There will be all kinds of history, ideas and folklore associated with the experience of women to uncover, as I explore and interview over the next few years.
Along the way we will be looking at the experience of being a contemporary grandmother and asking the questions:
Who are we, and where do we come from?
How does society view us?
What is it like being a grandmother for our generation, born after the war with all the advantages that were offered at that time?
What family history are we able to share with the younger generation?
Do they want it/need it?
Are we finding new ways of connecting with our faraway families?
Lastly, do we have a community responsibility to link our family future generations into their family past.
All these questions are relevant if you think, like me, a grandma is not just for Christmas.
This week on our walk down the path through the trees I saw a patterned caramel coloured wing feather lying on the ground. It was underneath a regular dark holly tree owl roost I took it home and sent it to our young grandson Noah aged six. I began by saying the poet wrote it just for him. Well its true isn’t it… poets write for everyone of us or no-one.
We don’t have the white Barn owls as far north as here it’s too cold for them.
We have the Tawny ones and at this time of year we hear the young ones calling across the fields to be fed.
I remember an older friend who was third-generation wise, before I had got to that point, said her method of coping with adult children’s families was, ‘Take every opportunity…… to say nothing’. I think she was agreeing with the wise old owl who sat in an oak listening, while keeping her beak zipped.
Had she known, my grandmother friend was describing ‘communicative competence’; the knowledge of the language, and the social situations in which to use it. The linguist and folklorist, Dell Hymes developed a theory of Noam Chomsky, who in 1965, pointed to a distinction between linguistic competence and the performance of it. Through ethnographic research Dell Hymes looked at how people relate to one another, and his work is called ‘Ethnography of Communication’.
It’s a wise old grandma owl who is competent in communication.
Hymes, Dell “Introduction: Toward Ethnographies of Communication”.Journal Article: American Anthropologist. (1964).
This Australian moth is called the Grannies Cloak (Speiredonia Spectans).
From a purple patterned soft cloak shape, we can see a grandma stare.
Is there such a thing as a metaphorical grandmother’s cloak I wonder? A cloak that a grandmother uses to keep her family safe from harm. We have heard about the menopause allowing effort to be diverted to the new generation because of the lack of children in later years. We know from our personal experiences she will step in as a regular care giver and sometimes be a rescuer when the middle generation is unable to cope.
Just how interested is she in protecting the progeny of her children? Will she move home, even across continents to be near them? According to my contributors, yes, she will. They will up-sticks and begin new lives to be near the growing family.
A Study in Canada has shown how Grandmothers from China, (Arber and Timonen: 2012) even moved into a different culture. In some cases they chose to leave their elderly parents behind in China. They went to Canada to offer childcare for their academic offspring who had gone to Canada’s Universities.
We seem more excited to experience being a grandparent than grandmothers in the fifties.
Sarah Ballard one of my contributors said of her upbringing in the fifties and sixties said, “There were so many of us grandchildren, my grandma used to called us all ‘chickabiddee’, to avoid having to remember names”.
‘It was like falling off a cliff.’ says journalist Lesley Stahl, about the love of seeing her grandchild for the first time in her book Becoming Grandma.
Grandmas seem to have an inbuilt feeling of wanting the best for the offspring of their offspring. Is it the same urge as they felt for their children, or are they bringing a different energy to that grandmother stare?
Grandparents says the statistics say (Stahl:2016) that since 2005, expenditure in America of grandparents buying big pieces of equipment like cribs and car seats has gone up by eight times.
Can I stretch the moth metaphor and ask if you have ever felt helplessly drawn to the flame of family? There you are Grannys Cloak moth, fluttering outside a dark window of family, staring inside, wanting to get nearer the light of kinship and community? I know I have.
Arber Sarah, Timonen Virpi, Contemporary Grandparenting: Changing Family Relationships in Global Contexts (University of Chicago Press 2012)
Stahl Lesley Becoming Grandma: The joys and science of becoming a new grandma (2016)
Gendered Language: A review of past and current thinking. (The Long Read)
Answering the questions:
Why does grandma do so much of the family remembering?
Why does grandma make such oblique requests?
By asking my contributors about their grandmothers as well as their mothers and themselves, the timescale of my research spans the whole of the twentieth century, to the beginning of twenty-first. Linguistic research began and developed over the same time. I am interested because the study of speech patterns, in particular the difference between men and women’s speech, comes up in my interviews. Grandma is different to Grandpa and the language we used with our children is one thing but is it the same as the language we use with our grandchildren or the partners of our children?
Our generation was taught how to express ourselves in the fifties and sixties and we retain those speech patterns. Our children and grandchildren have different ones. If I look at the subject of how we converse from a woman’s perspective. There are two angles. From the inside, there is the difference in how women speak compared to men, and from the outside, the words used to describe us. It is useful to grasp these differences, because they maintain hierarchies, sexism, and support a male/female division. (Lakoff:1975).
We learn our place in the world through our parenting, education, religion, media, and workplaces because as Simone de Beauvoir said in The Second Sex, ‘We are not born a woman, we become one’. We act out a performance being a woman. Of course it depends in what context our behaviour was formed. I remember in the seventies, here in the Anglosphere where we all live, (the countries that support a cultural heritage that comes from England). it was still regarded as wild behaviour to say to a boy… ‘Would you like to go out for a drink?’ One had to wait to be asked, and we were told we risked emasculating a man if we said, ‘I’ll pay’.
‘Men talk and women listen.’ That’s pretty well how it was up to the time of
that accelerated push towards equality in the 1970s.
Last week I was I thrilled to see that the New York Member for the House of Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood up to the bullying tones of male dominance. ‘So many times I haven’t bothered to argue back,’ she said, ‘it was never worth it, but this time I decided to respond’.
There have been some good examples of women straight talking, and men listening on the media. I see there is a woman cricket commentator for the Test Match, and great female journalists and newsreaders, not reporting on children and baking, are being listened to. It’s a long time since Nancy Astor uttered this putdown when provoked:
‘Yes, we women do talk too much, and even then, we don’t tell you half of what we know’.
I think we are agreed though, there are still differences between us, and more understanding of the complications held within language would be helpful. Helpful to us as a partner, employer, employee, mother, daughter, and of course grandma.
The first scholarly work about the differences between men and women’s speech was in 1922 when Otto Jespersen wrote a chapter about women’s language. His idea was that a woman’s language was deficient compared to men’s. Deficient, I say that again, in case you didn’t hear me.
In 1975, when we grandmothers were already grown up, we remember awkward sexist conversations in workplaces, or even within the family while we were raising children. At work we endured the old assumptions about us being there to take the notes or get the coffee. We smiled and as expected crossed our legs demurely as well as we could in our short skirts. At home we managed husbands, who negotiated the two worlds of work and family. Robin Lakoff, a woman linguist observed us and wrote ‘Language and the Woman’s Place’. … (I only feel the need to define her as a woman linguist in this context, because she spells Robin with an i). She expanded the subject of the differences in gender speech.
‘Women,’ she said, ‘feel it is crucial to be liked by their peers’, and she described a woman’s register, where women used ‘weak’ directives: ‘Would you mind taking these to the photocopier, thank you SO much’. Men she says, use a report style to the point, Take these to the photocopier. She describes this style as ‘rapport style’, designed to build and maintain relationships, not just get the job done. There are additional phrases women use, that are referred to as hedging, like ‘I’d like to suggest’ or ‘if you don’t mind me saying’ and tags on the ends of sentences like ‘isn’t it? Or couldn’t you?’ that soften the instructions. At the time of the woman’s liberation movement, Lakoff was not only looking at the way women were expected to speak, but also the way in which women were spoken of, at the time. Some ways are subtle such as women being referred to as Miss or Mrs when men were only referred to as Mr. which contains no marital marker. The Ms was invented at that time to get around that male dominance.
Even if we are mostly comfortable with the status quo, because we are used to it, differences matter, because language, as Lakoff observed, is linked to assumptions and social hierarchies. Take ‘sir’ for instance, is there a female equivalent? No because it dates from a time when all authority was male, so there was no need for an alternative.
Why should we worry?
These dividing words are subtle, and we become accustomed to them. However the words we choose maintain our social standards, as well as supporting power relations and gender oppression. The other day, a retired friend, a skilled conversationalist, said she was still getting used to having her engineer husband at home all the time. She told me that marital difficulty around everyday conversations was getting more aggravating:
‘I have to constantly remind myself’, she said to me, ‘his remarks are literal, not critical’. ‘For instance when he says to me’, ‘I see you’ve got your green skirt on’. He is stating a fact, observing, that I am wearing green skirt. He might even be pleased he has thought of something to say about my fashion choice. Meanwhile I am reading other things into the remark. That is the skirt I don’t like, I imagine he is thinking, or, that’s not a nice skirt, why did you decide to wear that skirt today? Or even why a skirt today at all?
I feel uncomfortable, go back upstairs and change the skirt. I come down again, and he says, I see you’ve changed your skirt…’
A popular book ‘You Just Don’t Understand’, (Tannen: 1990) written by a Deborah Tannen a teacher, was so well received by women in the 90s, the author toured America with it. A precursor to ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, women felt the book offered answers to the vexing question of miscommunication between the sexes. Its success showed there was a need for unravelling the baffling linguistic differences between men and women. Differences that didn’t seem to be logical or acceptable when there was so much equality in other areas.
More scholarly works, some from Dale Spender and Deborah Tannen followed.
We learned more about the subject of gendered speech patterns. Differences between men and women’s language use, and gendered performance continued to be observed and measured. Women listen they reported, because they have been encouraged to accommodate a partner in a conversation. It was shown that men dominate conversations in public even when they know less about the subject than the female they are talking to. They are typically less chatty at home in the domestic situation though. This was and continues to be frustrating for women especially I note, from my interviews, after retirement. Deborah Tannen (Tannen:1990) explained that outside the home, men are establishing status. They have no need to do that at home.
Women want to discuss the potential for the day ahead, the family birthdays, the perceived worries about a family phone-call, the man wants to read or hear the news in peace. (I am generalising of course, but I think this will resonate with most of you).
It has been shown by the research of Bruce Dorval (Dorval:1990) that in a conversation, women interrupt less, and encourage the other person to continue. Small ‘mms and a-ha’s help that. Men’s subjects tend to be more abstract and less personal, and I think we know that from our long experience. Men also say ‘that reminds me’ or ‘by the way’ more often he reports, so as to change the subject. The woman more often adds comments, that allow the same subject to extend. If she disagrees, she might say little at that moment, because she more interested in creating a rapport with the speaker. She is learning about this person, is taking mental notes and will consider a counter argument later. Dale Spender (Spender:1985) says the woman is being subordinate at this point, the male is dominating.
In sociology we have been informed about the ‘female mental load’, where the wife/mother/grandmother holds current past and future family issues in her head. I am generalising again, but it is a familiar pattern that ‘she’ devises a complicated intertwined plan which she works away at. When help from ‘he’ is offered, as in: ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do’, it only adds to the load because most jobs have to be defined and described before they can be done. Then we are into the ‘It’s quicker to do it myself’ scenario adopted by many. In 2012, Arlie Hochschild, in her book, The Managed Heart, describes what she calls, ‘emotional labour’. This is where the jobs of active listening, conflict resolution, and keeping people happy, are managed with a demeanour that is different to how she the person is feeling. Some professions require it, like airline stewards or nurses. Men can of course may adopt it, but in general, (again sorry), research tells us, woman use it consistently. Conversations where there is more listening and nurturing, is usually used by women. However now this rapport method is being used in call centres for a more efficient way of defraying complaints and sorting out problems, when there are no visual clues. Traditionally a female job, customer service employees are now often male. They are being taught to show empathy, keep the calls expressive in tone, but efficiently short.
Deborah Cameron tells us in her book The myth of Mars and Venus, ‘There’s no need to feel bad about the differences, it is just miscommunication’. Good to hear.
‘There are problems with dominance and difference’, she continues ‘but it is more useful to consider the two ways as differential power. For example a roundabout question beginning, with ‘I wonder if you had thought of doing so and so, can be as successful as a direct command. It’s still dominance, but by a longer route’. I think intuitively, we already knew that.
So, the current thinking is that no one needs to feel awful, there are no real conflicts, just differences that achieve the same goals. I have enjoyed looking at the dynamics and the evolving understanding of this convoluted linguistic behaviour because it casts more light on the experience of being a woman and especially grandma, because there are more delicate extensions of our family to negotiate. By the way, I shall have to tell my friend that the greenskirt (see above) is lovely but might not be the best choice. I can’t say clearer than that, obviously, because I am a woman.
Please do send your own gendered language anecdotes to share.
Cameron, Deborah, The myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak differently (Oxford university Press 2008).
De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949).
Hochchild Arlie, The managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press 2012)
Dorval, Bruce, Conversational organization and its development, (Advances in Discourse Practices Volume XXXV111 (1990).
Norward New Jersey).
Jespersen, Otto, Language: its nature, development and origin (Hamlin Press 2013 ).
Lakoff, Robin, Language and Women’s Place (New York: Oxford University Press 2004 )
Spender, Dale, Man-made language. (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1985).
Tannen, Deborah, You just don’t understand: Women and Men in Conversation. (New York Morrow, 1990).
Let’s talk about the Menopause. For most of us grandmas, it will be a dim and distant memory. Our breeding phase is even longer ago, and some of us feel a little redundant now, especially when our families live independently far away.
But in the paper this week, there was a headline:
‘New Evidence that Grandmothers were Crucial for Human Evolution’
We are not surprised, we have always felt crucial, haven’t we? It turns out that by having childless years, this luxury of post menopause built into our lifetime, we are able give our grandchildren extra care. Which animals have the menopause? It may surprise you to know, that it is only us, the killer whale, the short-finned pilot whale, the beluga, and the narwhal. No other mammals have this non breeding time, not the chimpanzee, nor the Orangutan who have to go on breeding until the end of their life, and then their younger offspring are in danger of dying too.
Grandmothers who live beyond their breeding time are able to shoulder part of the burden from the mother. By doing this, she is protecting her own genetic material. This help is called ‘The grandmother effect’ and benefits and protects the family. During my grandmother interviews I have heard stories of grandmothers trying very hard to satisfy family needs. Some have shown a very strong desire to be part of the grandchildren’s lives, even when separated if any more proof of ‘The grandmother effect’ were needed.
The picture below are the choices from one typical grandma in the ‘Grandma Squares game’. I ask each grandma contributor to select from positive and negative quotes about the experience of being a grandmother, this one is typical.
Stromberg, Joseph, New evidence that Grandmothers were Crucial for Human Evolution (Smithsonian Magazine October 23rd 2012)
Balcombe, Kenneth, Grandmother Killer Whales boost the Survival Rate of Calves Centre for Whale Research (Journal proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. BBC News Dec 2019).
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.
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).
Comics as they appeared in the 20th century newspapers, were cartoony and funny, hence the term Comic. (Comix are the underground version). They progressed into cartoon stories such as Tin-Tin, and Asterix. After the war there was a proliferation of weekly magazines in cartoon format. With the help of Google I can tell you it was 1958 when girl’s comics were first published. I would have been six. They would have been available in my Cornish Newsagent sometime soon afterwards. In 1960, I was in hospital for a fortnight for observation for a Scarlet Fever possibility. It was over my eighth birthday in February. Mum came to see me every afternoon driving over from Cornwall across the car ferry Plymouth. It was a long round trip and I remember thinking, I didn’t realise I was that important. Kids eh?
I suppose there wasn’t a lot of demonstrative outpourings at home to have alerted me to the fact I was precious. Anyway during those long two weeks in an isolation room were my first experience of lockdown, I had plenty of time for reading. One day, Mum brought a box of back issues of girl’s comics from kind school friends. I so enjoyed reading them, I was allowed to have one delivered every week when i got home. It was ‘Bunty’ published by D.C. Thomson. Other girls had ‘Judy’. It was delivered rolled up into a drainpipe concreted into the milk churn dock for newspapers at the bottom of the farm drive. Dad had the ‘Farmer and Stockbreeder’ delivered and Mum ‘The Guider’. Later my brothers had ‘The Eagle’. There was a weekly newspaper the ‘East Cornwall Times’ for local news. No national papers. I would read the comic strip stories in a state of bliss. I even remember some of the characters now: There was ‘Lorna Kent’ and her life at a strict ballet school, and the Four Mary’s boarding school adventures. Toots was a naughty character and there were dolls dresses to cut out on the back cover. No romance, no boys. That was left for the magazines for teens like Jackie with all the future delights of pop stars posters and boyfriends. I was reluctant at thirteen to give up Bunty and I had to be brave when she stopped arriving at the churn dock.
Jump forward 60 years to now, and those comics are still in my head, but I am reading about them, rather than the comics themselves. ) About how comics affected our notions of how we were to be as women. ( Walkerdine:1990)
Valerie Walkerdine suggests persuasively that our desires at that age are powerful, and that is certainly my memory. She says stories that in those strip cartoon way fed us potent themes of family loss, heroines who suffer silently before, and above all girls as victims of school bullying, cruelty, and abandonment. These storylines are exaggerated themes of reality, more similar to fairy story than real life, but the girl reader identifies strongly with these relationship themes. They dream of happy families… while they suffer; the archetypal happy family with a mother and a father and one or two siblings. We as girls accompanied the comic book characters and together fought our way towards solutions, using good manners and private endurance…No Claire, don’t tell the headmistress that Felicity cut my tie, I can mend it myself. Through the stories we engaged with difficult emotions and we were encouraged to work towards personal resolutions. Boys stories at that time, (Walkerdine: 1990) tells us, dealt with public bravery and injustice and the boy story heroes are rewarded publicly too.
See the difference? Girls in the stories are constantly misunderstood and judged unfairly often within the family and are expected to suffer in silence. The girls who win through, are quiet, helpful and courageous, serving others before themselves.
I am reminded at this point, that book reviews say that we women read more of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child than men. Jack the hero fights his way through injustices, slays the bad rescue the good, and like the Lone Ranger or the heroines of the girl’s comic stories, doesn’t expect to be praised or rewarded.
So what’s the point? Well, we were enjoying themes that informed us that girls are victims of cruelty and they rise above their circumstances by being unselfish. Temper doesn’t get you anywhere, because if you are quiet and good, and keep your head down, you will be rewarded in the end. This, she goes on to say, could connect into our future sexual selves, where we might think we should wait for, and perform politely/submit/service our prince/rescuer/husband/boss, (Coward:1982). I could go on, but I think I will leave it there.
Tell me what you think.
p.s. D.C. Thomson ceased publication of Bunty in 2001.
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. DepartmentofHuman Sciences, The Ohio State University.
At the Ethnology and Folklore Department (Elphinstone Institute) of Aberdeen University, I have been looking at the experience of grandmothers today, especially those who live far away from their grandchildren. The methodology I am using is empirical, through interviews, and their subsequent analysis. My subject group are grandmothers from the so called ‘Baby Boomer’ generation. In part the research will be auto-ethnological, as I am one of the group, brought up after the war, educated, white living in one of the ‘anglo’ countries that share a historic and cultural past. This geographic choice was made because I travel to America, England and New Zealand to see my own family, and in those places I meet other grandmothers who are treading the same well worn paths. They can be seen in queues at international airports with bags full of Christmas presents for grandchildren faraway. I shall be looking at the role, or agency of grandmothers, with respect to how family ethnology: the family history, and culture is being passed on. The choice of studying grandmothers was made because being at the fulcrum of a family, grandmothers are holders and transmitters of family knowledge. Psychologists have identified that creating a good sense of identity in young people through knowledge of their family, contributes positively to mental health. (Reese 2013)
In past times if our children emigrated, there was little chance of active communication with them. Now as our ability to travel has increased, (pre covid) we are creating well trodden paths, from the UK to the countries of the Anglosphere, and I find myself part of this group. Generally, our health and reasonable pensions, mean we can be more active. We have smaller families on the whole, so we cherish the grandchildren, and are keen to have contact with them even if they live far away. If we are unable to travel, information technology is ‘zooming’ upwards, and we know ‘whatsapp’ with our families as soon as it happens.
To illuminate the phenomenon of the 21st Century grandmother, (Timonen 2019) and in part to make sense of the experience for myself, I am looking at who she is, where she comes from, and what she is doing now, with regards to the passing on of her family culture. I invite all interested parties, especially the grandmas I am meeting along the way to join me.
Cited: Timonen, Virpi, Ed. Grandparenting Practices Around the World: Reshaping Family, (England, Bristol University Press; Policy Press, 2019).
I present to you the notion that each generation has a collective ambition. For ours, born after the war, it was the brave new world of empowerment for. A child in one hand, a career in the other. We had it all. Or maybe we had quite a lot.
It was the time of getting married, and loving stripped pine and earthenware pottery. We aspired to antiques/junk, growing wild bluebells, ( that was maybe just me) and Country Living magazine. We only kept in touch with our friends who lived away at Christmas time or with the occasional letter. If we lived in the town, we had images around us that reminded us of the country. Jugs of wild-flowers and homemade wine kits. Images that built on the idea of a life connected to nature and farming, but not actually dirtied by it.
(Feel free to add your own 1970s ambitions.)
A is for Avocadoes, (a new thing) the ambition to have an Aga, and if we could, antiques, au pairs (we often were one, not so often had one.) Alarm clocks woke us up for work or getting up to get the children to school.
B is for book groups, ‘The joy of Sex’ by Alex Comfort (not discussed at the book group) and bread (homemade). Ban the Bomb, Beatles (disbanded) Black Forest gateau. Biros, replacing fountain pens. Breastfeeding, Blackberry picking.
C is for cultural ambition and coffee mornings and crafts. Conservation when it seemed not too desperate.
Careers took a back seat when the children were little. Cycling with a wicker basket on the front. Colour tv arrives for some. Cravat were still being worn under an open necked shirt if you wanted to look posh.
D was for dinner parties and dogs and discussion groups, do it yourself, Danger-mouse, depression was recognised. Dads encouraged to see their babies born and come to the prenatal sessions. Duvets replaced sheets and blankets. Dinner services of nice china was expected as wedding presents.
E Evening classes. Earth-mother. Entrepreneurial enterprises – to earn a bit of money on the side.
F Furniture (second hand), feminism, freezing too many homegrown green vegetables, first fast food. First folding Pushchairs. Flower-power songs. Fear Of Flying by Erica Jong.
G Grandparent holidays, beginning of glam rock, college girlfriends and gay rights. Greenham common. Gardening.
H Holidays at home. Hitchhiking, Harold Wilson, hot pants, hedgerows
I Irish troubles, interest rates sky high, but houses cost 10 thousand pounds.
J is for jam making, Junk to collect. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull to read.
K Kids before twenty-five, Knitting, Kinky Boots.
L long haired men. Less abortions. (not connected) Long hair worn down (Mary Hopkin style) for evenings up in a bun for work.
M is for making and mending clothes. Microwaves. Men’s fashion started to be colourful. Mortgages just becoming available for single women.
N No computers. No mobile phones, not many home helps. Some nannies. Nylon sheets. Natural Child birth, National Housewive’s Register.
O Orange juice at breakfast time. Only one coat.
P Pill, pressing wildflowers, plastic bags rare enough to keep them for reuse. Patchwork classes.
Q Queens silver jubilee street parties and Queen. Quirky furniture.
S is for Stripped Pine, second hand shops, safety belts were the new law, spaghetti bolognaise, sharing childcare. Supermarkets Or stay at home mum Shoe-cleaning, we still cleaned leather shoes with wax polish and polishing brushes. Trainers were sports shoes we used for sports.
T Tie-dying, tomorrows world, twin tubs, typing with carbon paper. Three T.V. channels. Trousers not yet O.K. for work. Toy Libraries invented.
U Ugly colour combinations for wallpaper, Upwardly mobile attempts, upcycling.
V is for voluntary work, Vietnam, Valium
W willow baskets, wild flowers, spinning wool,
groups book clubs. Sharing childcare self education girlfriends doing everything ourselves. No help in the house
W washing machines that were automatic. Wimpy bars.
X men actors born.
Y yoga yukky student accommodation
Z Zerox ( Xerox ) machines, and zingy patterns on wallpaper and bedspreads… a lot of purple and of course orange and brown)
When I was looking for a subject for a research project aged sixty six, I knew I needed it to keep me amused for a long time and had to be based on my areas of interest and expertise. It needed to be as complicated as hopscotch, but simple as a skipping rope. It needed it to be as exciting as the rope swing over the river, but snuggly as a bedtime story. Stretchy as potty putty, surprising as a slinky, bouncy as a ball.
I homed in on the subject of women, women of my age and women whose families had travelled way from home. I could interview the women I meet when we go to New Zealand and America on our prolonged visits to our children. I pondered that our generation of women has a new story to tell. The particular beliefs, family history and separation are unique. If it is true that there is no one better to tell the story of a group than someone from within it, then I could be that woman. At the University I was steered towards the department of Ethnology and Folklore and The Elphinstone Institute. I wrote a proposal, sent it, and with guidance from Dr Tom Mackean wrote it again, and again over that summer.
And so it was that in 2019, I began a six-year part-time PhD in Ethnology at Aberdeen University a half an hour drive away. It hadn’t got a title as yet but it was to be on the experience of being a contemporary grandmother and how the subject of family history is being addressed.