Until recently, grandparenting was not a primary research focus in my work, though I have previously explored transgender women’s complex relationships with their grandchildren. In addition to this work, grandparenting has often been a secondary focus of other research projects I have undertaken, where participants on other projects spoke to me about their relationships with their grandparents, and how they helped to shape their own parenting journeys. A recent project, however, undertaken with Clare Bartholomaeus, focused specifically on people’s experiences of becoming grandparents.
Applications of research findings for practitioners
Our research has found that, across generations, people reproduce, or attempt to resist reproducing, their own childhood experiences when they become parents, and then grandparents. For some people this is motivated by challenging experiences, and for other people it is motivated by more enjoyable experiences. Certainly the people we interviewed were all looking forward to having either a first grandchild or another grandchild, however their narratives were differentiated by what they were bringing to the experience, based on their own pasts. This demonstrates that grandparenting is not the uniform experience suggested by stereotypes, but rather it is diverse, and very much reflective of people’s own journeys to and through parenthood.
In terms of practice, some of the participant narratives suggest that both parenthood and grandparenthood offer people opportunities to ‘correct the past’. This can involve parenting children differently to how people were themselves were parented, or it can involve having a more involved relationship with grandchildren or seeking to ensure that families stay closely connected. These are all understandable hopes for grandparenthood, but it is important that new grandparents in particular are supported to have realistic expectations. New kinship relations may not heal old wounds. New kinship relations may repeat old patterns or new patterns may develop, including those that are challenging. This is not to suggest that the people we interviewed were per se idealizing the possibilities that grandparenthood may hold for them. Rather, it is to suggest that there can be a difference between dreams and reality, and careful conversations about this can be helpful.
Applications of research findings for parents becoming grandparents
For some of our participants, there was very much a rose coloured glasses view of grandparenthood. For some people, this view may become a reality. For other people it may not. A pregnancy loss may temper such a view of parenthood. Challenges after the birth of a child that render fraught the relationship between grandparents and their own children may also temper such views. Relationships between children, their partners, and their partner’s parents may also introduce unexpected variables that temper such views. Whatever the reason, there are many potential pathways in terms of experiences of grandparenting, and practical support for grandparents to adjust to, or come to an understanding of, what grandparenting might look like in practice can provide important resources for parents who become grandparents.
Further, and as we know from the literature on grandparents parenting their grandchildren, such parenting can often be experienced as taxing. As we age, the levels of activity required to care for small children can be stressful, and health may not allow for it. Furthermore, if grandparents parent their grandchildren because their own children are unable to, this can introduce or exacerbate familial tensions. And of course the stereotype that all grandparents love and want to have time with their grandchildren can be a recipe for grandparents over committing to the care of their grandchildren. Again, this suggests the importance of supports for grandparents to know how to draw boundaries around their own time, to know when caring for or raising their grandchildren is beyond their capacity, and how to process such an eventuality in ways that that do not lead to a sense of failure.
Resources for practitioners
Supporting Queensland grandparents
Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
Resources for parents becoming grandparents
Raising Children Network – Becoming a grandparent
Raising Children Network – Being a grandparent carer
Parenting SA – Grandparenting (Parent Easy Guide 12)
Parenting SA – Grandparents (Aboriginal Parent Easy Guide)
Pregnancy, birth & baby – Grandparents
Zero to Three – Grandparents and extended family
Books/sources with personal stories
Psychology Today – Becoming a grandparent (by Joan Baronberg)
Rosenthal, D., & Moore, S. (2012). New age nanas: Being a grandmother in the 21st century. Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing.
Stahl, L. (2016). Becoming grandma: The joys and science of the new grandparenting. New York: Blue Rider Press.
Witkin, G. (2012). The modern grandparent’s handbook: The ultimate guide to the new rules of grandparenting. New York: New American Library.
The Spruce – The best kids’ books about grandparents
My research publications
Bartholomaeus, C., & Riggs, D.W. (2017). Daughters and their mothers: The reproduction of pronatalist discourses across generations. Women’s Studies International Forum, 62, 1-7.
Other research publications (selected)
Brennan, D., & Cass, B. (2014). Grandparents as primary carers of their grandchildren: Policy and practice insights from research. In A. Hayes & D. Higgins (Eds.), Families, policy and the law: Selected essays on contemporary issues for Australia (pp. 109-118). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Condon, J., Luszcz, M., & McKee, I. (2018). The transition to grandparenthood: a prospective study of mental health implications. Aging & Mental Health, 22(3), 336-343.
Craig, L., & Jenkins, B. (2016). Grandparental childcare in Australia: Gender differences in the correlates of providing regular grandparental care while parents work. Community, Work & Family, 19(3), 281-301.
Hamilton, M., & Jenkins, B. (2015). Grandparent childcare and labour market participation in Australia. SPRC Report 14/2015. Melbourne: National Seniors Australia.
Horsfall, B., & Dempsey, D. (2011). Grandmothers and grandfathers looking after grandchildren: Recent Australian research. Family Relationships Quarterly, 18, 10-12.
Kirby, J. N. (2015). The potential benefits of parenting programs for grandparents: Recommendations and clinical implications. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(11), 3200-3212.
Ochiltree, G. (2006). The changing role of grandparents. Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse Briefing Number 2. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Reid, J., Schmied, V., & Beale, B. (2010). “I only give advice if I am asked”: Examining the grandmother’s potential to influence infant feeding decisions and parenting practices of new mothers. Women and Birth, 23(2), 74-80.
Stgeorge, J. M., & Fletcher, R. J. (2014). Men’s experiences of grandfatherhood: A welcome surprise. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 78(4), 351-378.
Bates, J. S., & Taylor, A. C. (2013). Grandfather involvement: Contact frequency, participation in activities, and commitment. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 21(3), 305-322.
Caldas-Coulthard, C. R., & Moon, R. (2016). Grandmother, gran, gangsta granny: Semiotic representations of grandmotherhood. Gender & Language, 10(3), 309-339.
Dubas, J. S. (2001). How gender moderates the grandparent-grandchild relationship: A comparison of kin-keeper and kin-selector theories. Journal of Family issues, 22(4), 478-492.
Hasmanová Marhánková, J. (2015). The changing practices and meanings of grandparenthood. Reflections on the demographical trends and changing representations of ageing. Sociology Compass, 9(4), 309-319.
Mann, R., Tarrant, A., & Leeson, G. W. (2016). Grandfatherhood: Shifting masculinities in later life. Sociology, 50(3), 594-610.
Moore, S., & Rosenthal, D. (2017). Grandparenting contemporary perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Orel, N. A., & Fruhauf, C. A. (2013). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender grandparents. In A. E. Goldberg & K. R. Allen (Eds.), LGBT-Parent Families: Innovations in Research and Implications for Practice (pp. 177-192). New York: Springer
Patterson, S. (2005). Better one’s own path: The experience of lesbian grandmothers in Canada. Canadian Woman Studies, 24(2-3), 118-122.
Sandel, T. L., Cho, G. E., Miller, P. J., & Wang, S.-h. (2006). What it means to be a grandmother: A cross-cultural study of Taiwanese and Euro-American grandmothers’ beliefs. Journal of Family Communication, 6(4), 255-278.
Sorensen, P., & Cooper, N. J. (2010). Reshaping the family man: A grounded theory study of the meaning of grandfatherhood. Journal of Men’s Studies, 18(2), 117-136.
Taubman – Ben-Ari, O., Shlomo, S. B., & Findler, L. (2012). Personal growth and meaning in life among first-time mothers and grandmothers. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(5), 801-820.
Utrata, J. (2011). Youth Privilege: Doing age and gender in Russia’s single-mother families. Gender and Society, 25(5), 616-641.
Whalen, D. M., Bigner, J. J., & Barber, C. E. (2000). The grandmother role as experienced by lesbian women. Journal of Women & Aging, 12(3-4), 39-58.