“I have been very upset after a particular incident involving my grand-daughter, Sophie, who is 8. She is a lovely girl and we get on famously but she has just showed me a piece of writing she did for her new class teacher on “My Grandmother”. She wrote that I was very old, could not walk and had short white hair. In fact I teach her tennis, have my own black hair (shoulder-length), at 58 do not consider myself particularly old and play more games with her than my own daughter- who has multiple sclerosis. When I raised this with my son-in-law he was just amused. My son-in-law has increasingly been calling me “the aged one” and I am worried this will affect Sophie.”
When I was 8 many of my friends’ grandmothers behaved in an “old” way. From their buns or short hair (never shoulder-length like Mrs W) to their grandmother uniform of shapeless crimplene dresses and lisle stockings they presented themselves as demanding siblings, in rivalry for parental attention. As 8 year olds, those of us with grandparents who aged prematurely and unhealthily longed for benign, wise, solvent, upright figures who would give extra attention and support to our hard-working parents. Perhaps our descriptions for school essays similarly reworked and distorted a painful reality. Jane, aged 9, for example, wrote “My grandmother reads me a story at bedtime” when her grandmother could not read or write. The titles of family members- “Mother”, “grandmother”, “father”, “grandfather” have a powerful iconic meaning over and beyond the personal characteristics of each member and infant and junior school teachers are very aware of this.
Grandmothers in Western culture are not expected to be physically stronger than mothers. Yet Sophie has a mother who cannot play physically with her because of a disability and a grandmother who can. Has she found a way of hiding her hurt about her mother’s incapacity by transforming her grandmother instead? Is it safer to explore images of disability on somebody physically strong without feeling disloyal? Some children transform the image of the disabled parent instead. Mark, aged 10, found his father’s disability so unbearable he preferred to call him “lazy” instead. In his school essay he wrote “ My lazy Dad never helps in the house. He doesn’t even wash himself”. His class teacher understood the meaning of this essay as she had met his father on several occasions and they had discussed Mark’s fear of being physically fragile like his father.
Does Sophie feel weakened by having an ill mother? A child can feel weakened in identification with a same-sex ill parent or, alternatively, frightened and triumphant. Perhaps these issues have not been discussed in the family. Indeed, since Mrs W’s son-in-law also underlines her age- “the aged one-” are the younger two generations of the family uniting against her because they have not dealt with their own sense of loss?
Stanley Ruszczynski, of the Portman Clinic, comments “Perhaps both of Sophie’s parents have been unable to contain their own sense of loss and have therefore provided no containment for Sophie’s feelings. This means all images of handicap and weakness have to be transferred to grandmother”. The one fact that has to be true is that a grandmother is older than a mother and emphasising that age difference hides other differences.
However, some children age their parents or grandparents without illness being a factor. For a small child a teenager is old. We tend to define who is old from the perspective of where we stand. One woman in her mid 80s did not want to go into an Old People’s Home because there were so many “old people” in their 90s there. However, outside of egocentric definitions, a parent’s parent is a biological point of great significance.
Sometimes, the grandparent cannot bear this biological position. The woman who keeps saying of her child and grandchild “We just look like sisters” is running backwards. Christina, aged 16, shocked her mother & grandmother by dyeing her hair grey. “You two keep dyeing your hair blonde like mine when it is really grey so what are you complaining about?” she protested. Could Mrs W be protesting a little too much that her hair is her own original colour? Just as a child can struggle with a painful sense of triumph when a parent is weak a parent can feel they have triumphed biologically over an adult child.
Joan Bakewell is now “expecting” another grandchild. As a glamorous, intellectual grandmother who, like Mrs W, is providing a vigorous model, how has she experienced that state or the responses to it? “It was a condition I had not anticipated from the stereotypes available”, she commented. “Nobody says much about grandmotherhood or grandfatherhood. In a sense being a granny is part of the generational structure and not necessarily attached to old age as, depending on child-bearing patterns you could be a grandmother at 36 or 66. Commercials on TV and posters tend to make grannies benign, wizened, unthreatening, mild, in slippers, and in that sense relegates them into a passive function. I think grannies can be spiteful, bossy and vigorous. Red Riding-Hood visited her granny and saw a wolf! I’d like to become a matriarch. It is a great word and you begin to realise that as you move towards the end of life’s spectrum you can see the new crop coming up from down below and that is delightful.”
There are other reasons as to why it is grandmothers who receive this treatment. Whilst grandfathers and elderly men are capable of producing babies into their 80s women are not. Estela Welldon comments “There is a prejudice against sexuality in any save those in fecund groups. Post menopausal women are therefore singled out as being asexual. Could there be an attack on Mrs W’s sexual aliveness?”
There must be good-enough relationships in Mrs W’s family for her to be able to offer and have accepted such active grandparent time. Hopefully, that will provide the base in which these other issues might be able to be gently aired.