Monday, 8 April 2013

In praise of grandparents!

As you may have realised, I have reached the stage in life when I am a proud grandmother and step grandmother.  I love:
  • to see the young ones;
  • to have news of them;
  • to have them to stay;
  • to have fun with them;
  • to receive their confidences;
  • to spoil them.
But today I'm not writing about the joy, amusement and occasional heartache I have from the experience of being a grandmother, but rather about the role grandparents play in families and in society.

If, like me, you have been watching Call the Midwife, you will have seen one of the traditional  roles of grandparents, to attend their daughters as they give birth.  While this is less common now in our western, medicalised births, in traditional cultures this was what it was all about.  They would then care for the young family as the mother recovered after birth.  I particularly like the Vietnamese tradition where the mother is tended for 30 days after the birth, so that her only role is to feed and look after the newborn.  What a wonderful time for rest and bonding! 

In multigenerational households, grandparents are there to be closely involved in the life of the young ones every step of the way, supporting, giving advice and often taking on the care of the children as the parents work.  I don't want to over romanticise this: I am very aware that grandparents can rule with a rod of iron, undermine the daughters in law that come into the family, interfere between parents and children, prevent or make very difficult the introduction of change and create factions within the wider family.  There are, however, many younger Australians who have been raised in this style of household and who look back and see its benefits as well as the difficulties, and who remember fondly the close relationship they had with their grandparents. 
 A friend recently told me of his experience of an Anglo-Saxon version of this, when as an only child raised in a rural city, he had both sets of grandparents as well as many members of his extended family living in surrounding streets and moved from one to another for food, attention and fun!  Perhaps this represents the best of both worlds, but in this day and age families are dispersed across vast tracts of suburbia, interstate or even overseas and such easily accessed family support is not necessarily available.

Grandparents have always had a role in passing on the culture of their society.  As well as telling stories of their past, they passed on songs, dances, traditional rhymes and stories, games, foods and how to prepare them, handicrafts and activities.  This has not just been the role of grandmothers...grandfathers, as elders, also had an important role.  This, I think, is one of the roles that many grandparents fill today, and while Play School, Sesame Street and the rest might introduce modern versions, often the ones that children are exposed to first are the traditional ones that grandparents learnt as children, and used to their children.

Perhaps the most important role grandparents have today is providing care for their children, for working parents, or during school holidays or, sadly, where parents no longer have the care of their children.  This last situation, in particular, is a growing area as welfare departments, when looking for carers, usually start with the family network.  It is a huge commitment as it is not easy to take on the care of children, especially at an age when you may well have been starting to think about planning your retirement, when you might be starting to experience the odd twinge in the joints, when your contemporaries are becoming grey nomads.  Parents know only too well that it is hard work caring for children and that dealing with adolescents can frequently demand high levels of emotional energy, but generally their friends are facing these issues at the same time and are available for mutual support.  It's much, much harder caring for your grandchildren going through these stages especially as their issues are often complicated because of their past life experiences.  Financially too, the costs can eat into retirement savings, and although there are various government allowances available they are generally inadequate.  Grandparents Australia is an excellent organisation advocating on behalf of all grandparents but especially grandparent caregivers.

I would be interested to hear your experiences of having grandparents in your life, either as a child or as a parent with children, and of course from other grandparents!

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