New age ‘nanas’
Doreen Rosenthal worked together with Professor Susan Moore on adolescent and sexual health projects for more than 30 years.
Research on the ‘third age’ is their new challenge – one brought about by the desire to write about their experience as grandmothers.
“The topic of grandmothering certainly became much more interesting to me when I actually became one,” says Professor Moore, a Melbourne graduate and former University of Melbourne researcher, now currently based at Swinburne.
Doreen Rosenthal is Professor Emeritus in the Melbourne School of Population Health. She believes grandparents are an under-researched group.
“It’s such an important part of my life and my friends’ lives, but there’s so little known about ordinary grandmothers and their experiences,” she says.
“As a researcher, I wanted to put some rigour into the way I investigated this important aspect of most women’s lives.”
Together they wrote New Age Nanas – Being a Grandmother in the 21st century. The book is the first of two investigations into grandparents’ experiences, with another work focusing on grandfathers still to come.
Comprising analysis of interviews and survey data, New Age Nanas delves into the joys and challenges facing Australian grandmothers, using the participants’ own words to illustrate these themes.
More than 1,200 women aged between 34 and 92 years completed an online survey. Research covered experiences on health and ageing, relationship conflicts, time demands and the pastoral role of grandmothers.
With the traditional ‘nuclear’ family having become less common, grandmotherly experiences are no longer uniform. The research revealed a range of family structures.
“Several stood out for me. One was a young lesbian grandmother whose lesbian daughter had just had a baby boy,” Professor Rosenthal says. “This grandmother talked about her dreams for her tiny grandson, how he had already turned her life upside down but in the best possible way.
“She talked about having a ‘disease called love’,” Professor Rosenthal says.
Another participant became a grandmother at 33 years, upsetting the stereotypical image of grandmothers as old ladies.
Stepchildren add a complex and increasingly common layer to the grandparenting experience. Professor Moore is a step-grandmother herself and stresses that love doesn’t have to be based on a biological link.
“You feel just as deeply for the children, regardless of whether they are step-grandchildren or not,” she says.
Professor Moore says some of the pleasure of grand-parenting comes from the wisdom of having been a parent, while some derives from being able to enjoy the children without the responsibility of their full-time care.
“Handing back children is a great benefit. It doesn’t mean the grandmothers don’t love the children; it means they don’t have to worry about the daily responsibility, the tantrums and the sleepless nights.”
The research stories are descriptive of the unique bond grandmothers have with their grandchildren – a relationship often described as ‘doting’. The book examines the pastoral aspect of grandparenting, with 76 per cent of surveyed grandmothers acting as confidantes and wisdom-givers.
“It was interesting how many women saw that as an important part of their role,” Professor Rosenthal says.
Professor Moore believes that grandmothers benefit from being emotionally close to their grandchildren, while retaining sufficient distance that allows them to calmly discuss issues that grandchildren were reluctant to discuss with parents.
“A few of the grandmothers mentioned that their grandchildren – particularly their younger ones – confided in them. Sometimes there would be a special relationship, with things that couldn’t be told to parents,” she says.
Modern grandmothers cope with emotional demands not previously required of past generations. Combined with longer life expectancy and increased mobility, it means grandmothers have become more active. Most grandmothers (73 per cent) enjoyed good or excellent health.
“I loved my grandparents, but they seemed very old – certainly for as long as I remember them, they were stereotypically old,” Professor Rosenthal recalls. “Neither they nor their friends drove. The women didn’t work outside the home.”
The comparison with Professor Rosenthal’s experience is stark.
“I don’t remember ever having coffee or going to lunch with my grandmothers, something I do often now with my older grandchildren,” she says. “I dress differently and think differently from my grandparents.”
Professor Moore’s recollection mirrors those of her co-author.
“My generation often remembers grandmothers as people who sat in rocking chairs and people brought them cups of tea. They didn’t actually interact,” she says.
Involvement becomes crucial in an era when many women retain a role in the workforce. Grandmothers often step in as child-care providers, spending on average 12 hours per week with their grandchildren.
“Daughters are having the conversation more often with their mothers where they ask for help to keep working. That conversation becomes a standard in some families,” Professor Moore believes.
These themes are already influencing the compilation of their book on grandfathers, who view their role somewhat differently.
“We’ve seen evidence that grandfathers are interested in their grandchildren’s financial future, whereas grandmothers more likely think about the ‘here and now’ nurturing,” Professor Moore says.
New Age Nanas – Being a Grandmother in the 21st century (Big Sky Publishing).