Is grandmotherhood intensifying?

For years, scholars have been saying that motherhood in the United States is more demanding than it was in the past: while mothers used to simply send children outside to play, now they attend ceaselessly to every aspect of their development.

In a groundbreaking and engaging new book, a prominent sociologist says that grandmotherhood may be getting tougher, too.

Parents need more help than they used to, and grandmothers are “quietly, almost invisibly” stepping up.

Instead of just spoiling their grandchildren, many grandmothers now make significant contributions to their daily care, says Madonna Harrington Meyer, a professor at Syracuse.

Today, as many as 43 percent of grandmothers care for their grandkids regularly, according to Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Families and Jobs, for which Harrington Meyer recently won a major prize, the Kalish award, from the Gerontological Society of America.

A lot of these grandmothers hold down jobs themselves. Among employed grandmothers between the ages of 51 and 70, the focus of Harrington Meyer’s research, 46 percent provide at least some grandchild care, according to the book.

Harrington Meyer says that while the “intensification of mothering” seems to be driven by changes in cultural norms—our notion of how children should be mothered has shifted—the “intensification of grandmothering” seems to be a result of something more fundamental: “unmet need.”

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Today’s parents, who are often employed, single, or both, need more help with childrearing than yesterday’s did, and legions of grandmothers are “quietly, almost invisibly” stepping up to assist them, writes Harrington Meyer.

“Given the rise in the numbers of working parents and single parents, and the paucity of federal programs that provide job security or paid time off for family responsibilities, grandmothering may be intensifying because young working families need the help.”

Harrington Meyer based Grandmothers at Work on an analysis of government data and on interviews with 48 American women who balance paid employment and unpaid grandchild care.

Often, Harrington Meyer writes, grandparents have more control over their work schedules and more paid time off than their grown children do because they’ve been in their jobs for longer. So on some days, it’s easier for Grandma to meet the school bus at 3:30 than it is for Mom or Dad.

And many parents favor grandmothers over all other babysitters, Harrington Meyer writes. “Grandmothers are prized daycare providers because often the quality is very high, the cost is very low, and the flexibility is maximal.”

Most of the grandmothers Harrington Meyer interviewed were also helping to support their grandchildren financially.

“Though they are quick to say that their own parents did not help them much, or at all, they are also quick to open their wallets for the younger generations.”

“It appears that grandmothering is becoming more intensive with respect to both care and financial help,” writes Harrington Meyer.

While all the grandmothers she interviewed said they loved caring for their grandchildren, some said they were stressed and sleep-deprived, and “some are wishing they were doing a lot less mothering a lot more traditional or old-fashioned grandmothering,” she writes.

“Some ache to replace daily care with the fun things they had hoped to do as grandmothers, such as taking children on trips to the library, zoo, or beach.”

And some of the grandmothers in Harrington Meyer’s study were imperiling their own financial security by giving so much money to their children and grandchildren, she says.

But unless paid parental leave, subsidized preschool, and other family-friendly programs are enacted in the United States, the demands on grandmothers aren’t likely to ease.

“Young families have an increasing need for policies and programs that help them balance work and children. But in the United States there are not many options, prompting many to call for Grandma.”