The grandmother hypothesis
Blessed are elderly women, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
My cellular life began inside my grandmother.
This is one of my favorite reproductive facts, which I find very mystical and enchanting. Because baby girls are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have, my mom’s mom carried the cells that produced me. When my mom was in my grandmother’s womb, she got busy creating the egg that would become me.
Maybe it’s not wild to other people, but this tidbit of feminine biology is wild and special to me. When I learned about it, my deep, emotional connection to my maternal grandmother, Ma-Maw, was enhanced on a different plane.
I continue to feel such love and admiration for both of my grandmothers, both of whom have passed away. I wear a gold necklace with two lockets on it that was my maternal grandmother’s. In my imagination, the two lockets symbolize Lucy and Loretta, whom I still think about often, although it has been many years now since they both died. Their affection, joy, playfulness, loyalty, and care were so formative in my life and continue to shape me in ways that I probably don’t even recognize.
My Ma-Maw (Lucy) was particularly a central figure, as she and my grandfather lived an hour away and were very present in our lives. The majority of my most vivid memories of childhood feature her as a leading or supporting character. She was generous and tireless, never sitting down, always tending to someone or feeding them. When she was undergoing cancer treatment, she made seventeen cranberry pies to give to all of her nurses and doctors. She personally kept her hometown Hallmark store in business, as she wrote cards to everyone on every conceivable occasion. (After I gave a eulogy at her funeral, a woman came up to me and said, “You were right about the Hallmark cards. She’d mail my dog a birthday card every year.”)
Ma-Maw doted on me and my siblings. We all had pet names she’d given us at birth. She always called me her “angel.” We were perfect, in her eyes. Even though we most certainly were not, it was a radical, life-altering thing to experience unconditional love like that, especially from a nonparent.
She was funny and joyful, eager and generous, everything you want a grandmother to be. In many ways, I am nothing like her, and yet our differences always made my bond with her feel stronger.
Her death left a profound void in our family. Her loss, not having her in my life, is something from which I don’t think I’ll ever recover. It seems fitting, in a way, to carry this grief for her, to know that it’s not something I’ll misplace.
I believe grandmothers and elderly women are sacred. By this I mean they are holy and deserving of respect. (Yes, everyone is, but I believe there is a special holiness and vulnerability to grandmas that’s worthy of our attention and care.)
I’m in a cranky feminist state these days, and I get particularly riled up when I think about how society regards and discards old women.
After a lifetime, typically, of caring for other people and putting other’s needs ahead of their own, old women are cast aside and unseen by society. It happens early, too, this discarding. Once a woman is perceived as no longer sexually viable, once she passes behind the menopausal veil, she is silly, frivolous, unimportant. A nuisance. An old bag of bones.
We have clearly forgotten how valuable grandmothers are to our survival—to the very existence of our species.
A long-standing biological and anthropological mystery is why women go through menopause. Aside from dolphins and some whales, we’re the only female animals who stop reproducing and yet have years left to live.
Why is this the case? There are many theories, but when we look at the other mammals who are also menopausal, we begin to glean some clues. Dolphin and whale pods fare better when they have old, non-breeding females among them. These “grandmothers” pass down knowledge about hunting and kinship that help keep the pod alive and intact. Because they’re not raising their own young, they’re not as competitive about food and resources and are thus able to help care for others and share their wisdom.
Humans give birth to incredibly vulnerable babies who need a tremendous amount of care from the entire tribe to survive. A baby who only has her parents to rely on might not make it. Allo-parents are essential to survival. Anthropologists have settled on the “grandmother hypothesis” as one of the most plausible reasons to explain the mystery of menopause. Without grandmothers around, investing in childrearing and sharing wisdom, we might not have made it as a species. Grandmothers help raise children, train new mothers, find food, and support the family unit as a whole, along with supporting the entire tribe through the sharing of their wisdom and knowledge.
Today, so far separated from our hunter-gatherer origins, grandmothers are not seen as very valuable, especially in our Western context. What can they contribute to the economy? Aren’t they just drains on the system? What are they for, anyway?
I am eager to recast an imagination for grandmothers in our current disembodied age. Proximity is something that matters here: having grandmothers live nearby seems essential, whenever possible, which is a loss I have written about before.
There is great value and wisdom in elderly women. We have to start opening up to it as a culture.
I think about a letter from Jenna Park about how Korean ajummas (middle-aged married women) dress really boldly and loudly once they approach menopause. They start wearing magenta tracksuits and get big perms and wear blue eyeshadow. They refuse to fade into the background, in other words.
“Instead of acquiescing to societal demands to look young, ajummas just embrace the inevitable reality of aging in a fearless attitude of accepting mid-life. I’ve read that Koreans these days are reacting more negatively to the term, but ajummas have historical and cultural significance and when they are flocked together in groups, dressed similarly in a uniform of quilted vests or gore-tex jackets, visors, and colorful floral prints, they are a force to be reckoned with. They are the opposite of invisible.”
I love this quiet revolt against society’s expectations. I love the refusal to be ignored and discounted.
“The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.”
— Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs, Kerry Howley
Roman Stories, Jhumpa Lahiri
Eve, Cat Bohannon
Aliss at the Fire, Jon Fosse