A good friend of mine is going through a tough time at the moment. She is eight months pregnant with her second baby and hasn’t felt that great since the first trimester. In addition to her pregnancy, she is being kept frantically busy caring for her three-year-old daughter, who has been suffering from a nasty infection in her spine for the past eight weeks. Early in the illness, her little girl was hospitalized, but now her daughter is at home — in a back brace and on a semi-permanent IV drip inserted into her upper arm. My friend has been trained by the home-healthcare nurses from Children’s Hospital to handle her toddler’s medical needs, which involve getting up around the clock to check the IV drip and adjust the back brace. Her husband is very supportive and helps all that he can, but he has to be at work more than 40 hours per week so that the bills stay paid until his daughter has recovered and his exhausted wife gives birth.
Not so many years ago, a situation like this would have had “Grandma comes to help out” written all over it. But not today. My friend has relied heavily on the generous love and support that she has received from her pals and neighbors, but has been decidedly underwhelmed by the reaction of her own mother and mother-in-law, each of whom has been minimally helpful at best. Each grandmother lives within a few hours of my friend’s front door, and each of them undoubtedly loves her three-year-old granddaughter, but the idea that they might move into the guestroom for the duration in order to do traditionally grandmotherly (and undoubtedly none-too-exciting) things like knit baby booties, prepare meals, answer the phone, and do laundry seems not to have occurred to them. There have been a few two-day visits and cards and gifts sent sporadically via mail, but there have also been many days at a time when my friend doesn’t hear from either of these women at all. As disappointed as she is, she knows that grandmothering just isn’t what it used to be.
For one thing, each of these particular grandmothers is divorced from the man with whom she shares her granddaughter’s genes (although neither of them by choice). One of them has been divorced for thirty years and the other, for less than one year. And one of them, at age 56 (definitely only middle age in this era of botox, estrogen replacement, and tae-bo), is just now hitting her peak years in a demanding career. One grandmother stays very busy caring for her invalid second husband and the other is busily enjoying the dating scene after suffering through 30 years of an unhappy first marriage and a cheating spouse. (This grandma also takes fly-fishing lessons and likes to do amateur road-racing competitions in the red sports car she insisted that her ex-husband buy for her before she would sign off on their divorce.) One is a blonde, and one is a brunette. Neither of them can knit, but both of them see therapists, get massages, and like to travel. In other words, these are not your mother’s grandmothers.
While it’s clearly a great improvement in our culture to see older women exercising, working, continuing to learn and grow, and defying stereotypes, there is a downside as well. Grandmotherhood has become a cultural liability. While older women were once accorded a measure of community respect and instant gravitas by virtue of their years and experience, today’s post-menopausal women are seemingly no longer allowed to age at all. Today’s fifty-plus role models for women include Goldie Hawn, Lauren Hutton, Cybill Shepherd, and Susan Sarandon, women who clearly don’t look like they spend much time baking cookies for grandchildren.
There was a time when a man who would abandon his 55-year-old wife of 30 years for his 25-year-old secretary was the recipient of community scorn and disapproval. Today, however, divorce has become so normalized that men no longer fear that stigma. As a result, older women have gotten the message that they better not get any wrinkles or let their hair go gray or they might just end up in the infamous First Wives Club. The “grandmother” label — with all its associated baggage — is no longer one that many older women want to carry.
Sadly, this represents a loss for our entire culture. Older women who should be able to “let down their hair” during the grandmothering years and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of hard work and family-building are frightened into a constant and often desperate vigilance lest their true age become obvious. Communities are deprived of the unique nurturing skills and wisdom traditionally offered by female elders. And mothers in a pickle, like my friend, are left without anyone to rock their babies to sleep with a practiced hand and the lullabies passed down through generations.
This essay originally appeared in Metro Pulse in 2002.