When I was 12 years old, my mom moved us across the country to go live near her parents. She was a single mom at the time – and a badass one at that – but working and mothering on her own was a struggle, and she knew she needed some extra help.
For the first few months after we moved, we lived at my grandparents’ house. Just thinking about my grandmother’s chicken soup, and the way she set out fresh folded towels for us each morning, brings tears to my eyes. I truly felt cared for and protected then, and I know it was meaningful for my mother to be cared for too, after so many years of hardship.
Soon, my grandparents helped my mother buy an apartment a few blocks away from where they lived. My grandpa would get up each morning to walk my younger sister to her bus stop. After school, my sister would go to my grandparent’s house to sew and paint with my grandma. I was a surly teenager by then, but my grandparents still supported me in their ways – driving me around to this and that activity, and attending my school events.
My grandparents both lived to their early 90s and have been gone now for many years. I miss them every day – not just because they were truly generous, loving people, but because of the immeasurable ways they saved our family, and gave us opportunities to live our best lives.
I know I am not alone in this sentiment. Grandparents play a special role in so many people’s lives – making it possible for families to thrive and survive, even through the difficulties they may face. It turns out that this feature of “grandparenting” may have an evolutionary role too – with researchers finding that throughout human history, living near grandparents has benefitted families in profound ways.
Check out these two studies recently published in Current Biology. They look at the impact that grandmothers in particular (sorry grandpas: we love you too) have played and the impacts they have had on the lives of mothers and their children.
According to NPR, researchers of the first study dug into the history of Finland and an area that is now Quebec to understand the roles that grandmothers played for these populations.
First off, living near grandma had an impact on family size, the researchers found. The farther a woman lived from grandma, the fewer children she had, with women living over 200 miles away having 1.75 fewer children than women who lived closer.
Women in those days had a lot of children – 8 on average! – but child mortality was much more common then, so grandmothering was important in terms of survival. In fact, living close to grandma decreased instances of child mortality. Women who lived close to grandmas also began having children at younger ages.
The second study also looked at the impact of grandmas, but in finer detail. Studying a database of preindustrial Finish people from 1731 to 1895, the researchers similarly found that having grandmothers nearby increased the number of children women were likely to have. Having a grandmother around increased a toddler’s chance of survival by a whopping 30%. Amazing, right?
However, they found that after the age of 75, having a grandmother around actually decreased a child’s chance of survival. Why? “Too many mouths to feed,” according Simon Chapman, one of the researchers. “At this time, paternal grandmothers often lived in the same home as their son and may have required extra care,” Chapman tells NPR.
This statistic might also have had to do with longevity: As the researchers pointed out, grandmothers’ mortality rates coincided with when their helping abilities began to wane.
Hmmm…maybe these grandmothers were just tired AF from all the caring they’d been doing all their lives? That’s my guess.
Thanks to modern medicine, grandmothers (and grandpas) these days tend to live longer. But sadly for many of us, they don’t play the momentous roles they used to. Don’t get me wrong: many of us would rather not live in close proximity to our parents – and especially if we have a strained relationship with them, we do not want them to have such an involved role in our lives. Still, many of us wish we’d lived closer to our kids’ grandparents, but that just isn’t feasible.
Whatever the case, the idea that we need “the village” to thrive is still very true. Yet so many of us don’t have that nowadays. And even if we have living parents who are willing to help, it’s different than it once was. Many of us have parents who are still working into their 60s and 70s. They have their own struggles and can’t always support us emotionally or financially.
I personally made the decision years ago to live quite near my own mother (as well as my in-laws!). My mom lives just a few miles away, actually. It doesn’t come without its own baggage, for sure, and sometimes I wish we lived maybe a few more towns away, just for a little breathing room.
At the same time, I know from experience how important grandparents can be for kids and for parents, and that has proved true again and again. There is truly nothing like an extra set of hands to have close to you, especially ones you can trust with your precious kids. My mother is as generous to us as her own parents were, and I see my children forming lifelong memories of that care.
So as much as I complain about the sometimes suffocating nature of living so close to my mom, I know in my heart that it will all go by faster than I can imagine, and I will not regret spending these golden years of her life in close proximity to her.