I have a small toddler who is obsessed with his grandma. From the moment he wakes up he’s trying to FaceTime her, when we leave our house he pulls us in the direction of hers, if we ask him a question he answers with her name. When yesterday I told her about this, the high, ringing pitch of his affection, she said, “Bit creepy?” then settled back down with him beside the radiator to learn more about Meg and Mog’s eggs.
One unexpected joy of having children has been watching both of them form deep and marvellous relationships with their two grandmothers, finding there in the cashmere warmth of their company not just comfort or chocolate, but a level of understanding often lacking in their parents. Which is why it didn’t surprise me to read that the first study to examine grandmothers’ brain function suggested they may be more emotionally connected to their grandchildren than to us, their own children.
Could grandmother and grandchild be the only truly perfect relationship? The only one not intrinsically stained by over-exposure, duty or the water damage caused by previous relationships? The only one where nostalgia finds an appropriate home, one of few where affection can be noisily demanded, and the transactions of love and sugar do not leave bitter tastes? My partner and I moved closer to our families when we had a baby for what we thought were practical reasons, and while we have gratefully milked them for every drop of childcare they have in their creaking bodies, we had no idea the main benefit would not be their physical presence, but their emotional proximity.
The anthropologist behind the grandmother study, Professor James Rilling, scanned women’s brains as they looked at photos of their grandchildren, noting “activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy”. More so, in most cases, than in the brains of these children’s own fathers. “If their grandchild is smiling, they’re feeling the child’s joy. And if their grandchild is crying, they’re feeling the child’s pain.” Which is a relief for parents like me, who promise they will get to emotional empathy just as soon as the other things on our list, like feeding, hygiene, earning, standing for six whole minutes by the recycling bin contemplating plastics, are all ticked off.
“The grandmother hypothesis”, which was developed by an evolutionary biologist in the 1950s, argues that the reason women live so long beyond menopause is in order to help raise their grandchildren. I can already picture the witherment on my mum’s face were I to suggest this to her, but still, it makes a certain kind of sense. If I was a post-menopausal woman, I too might feel a certain amount of irritation at the simplicity of this, the reduction of my existence to a kind of padded domestic prop.
But the “raising” dispensed by a modern-day grandmother, whose life is so much larger than that of most grandmothers that came before, has a happy purity. It’s unsullied by the discipline and nagging served by a parent, and is anchored instead in attention, and food, and just thinking the kid is fabulous.
My daughter has wanted a baby since she was a baby, a broodiness that saw her as a toddler changing the nappy of her nappies, and asking me earnestly aged four, if it was true that all the children she would ever have were already inside her. Well, yes, I said, paused on the kerb. While the existential bogglement of such a concept terrifies me, I look forward to grandmotherhood, despite all the karmic duty it will no doubt entail. I look forward to enjoying the correct amount of responsibility – weighed and packaged and bound by the hours of three and six. I look forward to being professionally adored, small children seeing me as a kind of wealthy goddess rather than moany oven. I look forward to offering an abundance of care, voluptuous and extra, to weep along with these small children at their many daily woes rather than, as I do currently, tut greyly and confiscate scissors.
One privilege of having an “emotionally empathic” grandmother lies in evidence that shows a child has fewer emotional problems and better educational achievements if they have an engaged grandparent – every shared year between grandparents and grandchildren increases a grandchild’s likelihood of completing secondary education by, on average, one percentage point.
Another privilege is the chance for a person to stand back from their formative relationship with their mother, the soul of which has inevitably seen many dark nights across the decades, and to watch the best version of that relationship replay its edited self upon a grandchild, all bitterness wrung out, all disagreements void. It is the only form of detox I can conscientiously recommend.