Granny Hour

Coincidentally, I noticed a couple of pieces about the importance of grandparents last week. One, another fascinating article in The New Republic by Judith Shulevitz;  the other, a decision of the Tel Aviv District  Court reversing on appeal a decision by the Tel Aviv Family Court.

The appellate court granted grandparents in Israel permission to serve court papers to a former daughter-in-law currently residing abroad; she’s a former daughter-in-law since the grandparent’s son – and father of grandchild – died in 2001. Under the provisions of the Israeli Law of Legal Capacity and Guardianship, grandparents who have lost a child have a  statutory right to ongoing contact with the offspring of the deceased child.  (There are historical reasons for this, having to do with grandparents who lost a child in the army; as a society, we want to do our best to ensure that they do not suffer a double loss – of both their child and their grandchildren. There are also serious proposals to legislate  ongoing contact for all grandparents.)

One of the underlying and even unstated assumptions of the court decision, is that grandparents are important to the  emotional development and well-being of the child. The question Shulevitz’s article asks is: Why, from an evolutionary point of view, do grandmothers exist? Anyone who has had a meaningful relationship with a grandparent, or anyone who’s experienced the delight of a grandchild might find the question absurd. Apparently however, it’s not so simple.

From the point of view of the selfish gene, creatures are supposed to drop dead as soon as they lose the power to reproduce. A man can make babies his whole life, even if the sperm of his old age lacks vigor and genetic fidelity. A woman outlives her eggs by about 20 years, which almost no other female mammals do.1 (Only female killer and pilot whales and orcas are known to last as long after the end of their menstrual cycles.)

Besides being classed among the oddities of the animal kingdom, post-menopausal women lack obvious utility. They tend to be weak. They don’t have much sex appeal. They eat food working people might make better use of. In Paraguay’s Ache tribe, aging women used to listen with terror for the footsteps of the young men whose job it was to sneak up on them with an ax and brain them. Most societies don’t actually murder their grannies, but that women manage to attain old age is an evolutionary mystery and requires explanation.

In the case under discussion in the Tel Aviv District Court, after the son died in 2001, the grandson -barely a toddler at the time – developed and maintained  a particularly close relationship with his grandfather. At some point his mother remarried and in 2011 moved to Canada with the son. According to the grandparents, they had a clear agreement with the mother as to how often they would see their grandson, and according to them, the grandson is in touch with them and misses them a great deal. One of the disputes that actually moved the grandparents to file a suit with the Family Court was a decision by the mother to celebrate the son’s bar mitzva in Canada rather than in Israel.  The decision was an especially harsh blow to the grandfather who is confined to a wheelchair and cannot make the trip to Canada for the event. 

The Family Court refused the grandparents permission to serve their former daughter-in-law with court papers outside of the State, primarily due to the doctrine of forum non conveniens, that Israel was not the appropriate judicial forum in which to hear the case.

The appeals court rejected this position for a number of reasons. It accepted that the mother and the grandparents had an agreement about the conditions for ongoing contact with the child. Ultimately, the court overturned the Family Court’s decision not to allow the grandparents to serve the mother with court papers in Canada, and accepted  the position that the court in Israel -given the significant ties to Israel – was indeed an appropriate forum in which to hear the suit. The District Court did not rule on the substantive issues, but sent the case back to the lower court.

So what is the significance of grandmothers, what is what is known as the Grandmother’s Hypothesis?

From these slim clues, Hawkes and her colleagues developed the “grandmother hypothesis,” which holds that women past childbearing age helped not just their children, but their children’s children, and lengthened the human lifespan in the process. Without babies of their own to lug around, grandmothers had both time and a very good reason to be useful. When they eked out food for their daughters’ children, they reduced the chance that those children would die. That gave the grandmothers a better chance of passing on their own predisposition to longevity…

…Two decades later, the grandmother hypothesis has gone from oddball conjecture to one of the dominant theories of why we live so long, breed so fast, and are so smart. The extra calories and care supplied by women in their long post-fertile period subsidized the long pre-fertile period that is childhood. And that’s what made us fully human.

Shulevitz does not explain what evolutionary purpose is served by grandfathers, but her conclusion is relevant to grandparents of either sex, though she does see a distinct advantage to grandmothers:

In a happy coincidence, the grandmother hypothesis comes along just as Americans enter what might be called the Age of Old Age. America’s biggest generation, the baby-boomers, began retiring in 2011…But are senior citizens really “greedy geezers” (a term made popular by this magazine in 1988) about to bankrupt us? The grandmother hypothesis suggests not. It suggests that we should see the coming abundance of over-65-year-olds as an opportunity, not a disaster….

As for actual grandparents, a growing body of research shows how much they help their grandchildren, even when they aren’t giving them hands-on care or food…

But grandparents also give grandchildren more intangible gifts. In the mid-’90s, a Stanford University fellow named Luba Botcheva went home to Bulgaria to study how grandparents affected families struggling to survive the fall of communism. In the remote and very traditional region where she did her research, several generations would live under the same roof. The socialist-era factories had been shut down, and jobs were scarce. Botcheva discovered that grandparents’ pensions were often the most dependable source of a household’s income. In addition to paying the bills, however, grandparents buffered grandchildren against the harsh parenting that comes from acute anxiety. Children who grew up with grandparents in the home reported less depression than those without. “It was the opposite of what we expected,” she said. “I called it the ‘moderation effect.'” Many of the grandparents had lived through World War II, so when it came to poverty and uncertainty about the future, they had “social wisdom” to share, as Botcheva puts it, which kept tension levels down.

And perhaps (I find evolutionary anthropology just a little overdetermined) they were able to share with the children that great intangible, an extra dose of love. Or how about something like this?

And can baby-boomers, apparently not the most narcissistic generation ever, but still fairly self-absorbed, rise the challenge?

Not that all grandparents can or want to be useful. As more people in industrialized countries postpone childbearing, parents become grandparents later and have less energy. The divorced ones may have started second or third families of their own. Global mobility puts distance between the generations. Assisted-living facilities segregate the old. Some retirement communities bar children altogether.

Shulevitz’s vision seems somewhat naive, to think that we will change our patterns of living to accommodate grandparents in our immediate surroundings. That would require a significant transformation in how we see our aging population.

But children still need the nurture they once got from their mothers’ mothers. So it’s worth thinking, along with Fried, about institutions that would give parents and children that grandparental boost. I dream of communal houses or apartment complexes where families could live near grandparents but not right on top of them. That vision gives rise to others, some of them unlikely in our conservative United States, but realities elsewhere: publicly funded day care, better mothers’ and children’s aid societies, a national version of Fried’s experiment of putting older people in schools. These programs would take advantage of our deepening wellspring of senior talent, which would cut costs, make old people happier, and sew up the threadbare bonds among the generations. If we want to keep enjoying the grandmother effect, we’ll just have to broaden our idea of what a grandmother can be.

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