Working mothers have been a cultural touchstone for more than generation, and we’re accustomed to thinking about the implications of having combined breadwinning and childrearing into a single family role. But working grandmothers? That’s a category we don’t talk much about, though according to Madonna Harrington Meyer, a sociologist at Syracuse University, older women who work and take care of their grandchildren are increasingly a part of how American families operate.
“The perception people have is that grandma doesn’t have a job, she’s baking, she’s happy to have people over,” said Meyer. “The real thing is grandma’s working and still taking care of her grandchildren.”
Earlier this year Meyer published a new book, “Grandmothers at Work,” based on conversations with 48 working grandmothers. In an interview, Meyer explained that the biggest surprise to emerge from her research was that working grandmothers exist at all, at least in such large numbers.
According to the 2010 census, 2.7 million grandparents—including 1.7 million grandmothers—are caretakers for at least one grandchild. There is no clear tally of “working grandparents”; some of those are surely retired, but that figure also misses all the grandparents who work to provide some form of part-time care or financial support to their children. Meyer said that working grandparents “appear to cut across race and class,” though she added they’re “a little more common in lower income [families] than higher income [families].”
If one stereotype about grandmothers is that they’re baking cookies, another is that they view their grandchildren as a pure delight. In her interviews, Meyer found that while most grandmothers do take “a great deal of joy” in their grandchildren, being a working grandmother is hard and tiring just like it’s hard and tiring to be a working parent. “They don’t often feel that they have a whole lot of choice,” Meyer said. “Their services are needed and they think, if I don’t pitch in, who will?”
Being called into caregiving duty creates a couple of dilemmas for working grandmothers. One is emotional: about a third of the grandmothers Meyer interviewed worried that they were enabling their children to slack in their own parenting duties. The other is financial, and one that Meyer believes society needs to pay attention to. “The most alarming scenario,” she said, “is women who are working in their 50s and 60s, and should be saving for retirement, [but instead] are diverting money away from retirement into spending on their children.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.