Is it better to be a grandmother than a mother?


On Thursday morning I sent my mother a WhatsApp message. “Entertaining discussion on Radio 4 about how it’s better being a grandmother than a mother,” I wrote. She didn’t reply. It is not easy being a son.

On the Today programme, Amol Rajan and Sheila Hancock had been discussing a study by anthropologists in Atlanta, Georgia, which found that grandmothers may be more emotionally connected to their grandchildren than their children. The researchers showed 50 women pictures of their biological grandchildren, the child’s parents and random children and adults, and watched the effect it had on their brains. When the grandmothers looked at the grandchildren, the part of their brain associated with “cognitive empathy” lit up. We don’t know which part of the brain lit up when they saw their children. Have scientists even identified the part associated with contempt and regret?

The brain scanner was unnecessary, anyway. The evidence is everywhere. At the sight of a grandchild, the heart of even the sternest British matriarch – and I must say here, very clearly, that I am not referring to my own mother – turns to puree. Women who have never exactly been profligate with affection – again, Mum, not you – become cooing, cuddling, gaga machines.

Were I referring to my own mother here, I might talk about how the beaming woman who welcomes my daughter with popcorn, TV and repeated use of the words “poppet” and “darling” is so unrecognisable to her own children that I sometimes wonder if she is being impersonated, Talented Mr Ripley-style, by an out-of-work primary schoolteacher. But, to be clear, I am not referring to my own mother. One theory behind the grandchildren empathy is that the love of grandparents helps improve the grandchild’s chance of survival. It certainly improves their chances of treats.

The obvious explanation for these superior vibes is that the time grandparents spend with their grandchildren is usually voluntary, and filled with high-status activities such as games and trips to the zoo, rather than parent drudgery such as discipline and vegetables. It is as though the management consultants have been in and ruthlessly stripped out all the worst parts of parenting. Nappies and homework? No. Ice-cream? Yes. Just when you think things cannot get better for the boomers, something like this comes along.

All parents are tories. Not capital T, although obviously there are a few of those around. But their ambitions for their children, born of terror, tend to the conservative. Get a sensible job. Wear warm jumpers. Be happy. Grandparents are anarchists by comparison. Eat that junk food, stay up late, go to the park without being swaddled like an early Arctic explorer. It’ll be fine.

It would be nice to think that grandparents are more chilled out because they have gone round the course already. One obvious but overlooked aspect is that to have grandchildren you typically will have had children first. After the frenzy of parenting, where you somehow take on this project at the same time as trying not to get sacked and redo the kitchen, maybe you come to grandparenting with a clearer sense of priorities. After picking your children up for years, eventually you put them down for ever.

As a grandparent you can appreciate these everyday joys without worrying so much about GCSE results or recorder practice. A bit of detachment can lead to more rational decisions. What’s more, when they become grandparents your parents can complain about your parental neuroses – while conveniently forgetting that they gave you those neuroses in the first place. Win-win.

Sadly, I’m not sure it’s true. Eventually, my mother replies. “As a parent, you have great power, at least for a bit, and can determine if your child supports Arsenal, goes to church, watches TV, learns ballet. As a grandparent, you don’t have this power,” she adds, with only a hint of regret. “It’s a junior role. The jobs can’t be compared. With a child, you’re programmed to look after it or it will be eaten by wolves. With grandchildren, you just have to return them in one piece. It’s like being a slightly more involved babysitter.”

Grandparents also don’t have to worry as much about the overall outcome. In the normal course of things, by the time your grandchildren are old enough to have become truly disappointing, you will be on your way out. Before that, you’ll have had your children to look after you in your dotage. At least we are still good for something.