Comment: Pandemic, economy shifting role of grandparents

Grandparents’ proximity to the immediate family can vary, but they often play a vital child-rearing role.

By Sarah Stoller / Special To The Washington Post

Grandparents have had a strange time during the pandemic. While some have been separated for long periods from their children and grandchildren because of shutdowns and health concerns, others have become members, or near members, of the households of their children and grandchildren.

Growing parental desperation due to a lack of affordable child care, dramatized by the pandemic, has placed new pressures on grandparents to support their children’s families; even sometimes at a distance.

Yet grandparents continue to be overlooked as essential members of our communities. Over the past 50 years, the scope of grandparenting in the United States has grown to include routine child care and day-to-day involvement; even as the perception of grandparenting has remained static.

The pandemic crisis and the burdens of labor confronting families have made reflection on these trends critical to ensuring that grandparents receive adequate social recognition and support.

Until the 19th century, grandparenthood was not the social role we think of now. With shorter life expectancies the norm, parenting and grandparenting tended to happen concurrently in extended families and communities. Most grandparents — approximately 75 percent of Americans 65 and older in 1850 — lived in households with their children and grandchildren. They labored alongside other family members in household economies that often included farm work, small-scale production for market and caring for young children. Extended families living under one roof made good sense at a time when most families were involved in agrarian work.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the normalcy of grandparents living as members of the household unit began to shift. Industrialization and the decline of farm work meant that work opportunities and marriage often took adult children farther away from their parents and made the help of extended family members less of an economic necessity. Grandparents began to live separately from their children’s families; often still within close traveling distance, but in some cases out of range for daily assistance.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, this shift in living patterns was accompanied by a shift in perceptions: Grandparents became gradually dissociated from the labor of child care. By the 1920s, the growing physical distance between grandparents and their children’s households meant a growing sense of distance between grandparents and everyday family routines.

Once seen as important sources of knowledge, wisdom and support in child rearing, grandparents were no longer regarded as experts. By the 1940s, a majority of Americans polled indicated that it was important to raise their kids differently from the way in which they themselves had been raised. Grandparents were more often regarded as fun playmates for the children of busy parents and a source of special treats and entertainment rather than as allies in the work of day-to-day life.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this growing distance, the mid-20th century was a pretty good time for grandparents. In general, they enjoyed improved material circumstances compared with earlier generations. For the first time, the lives of many grandparents actually approached a Victorian ideal that envisioned grandparenthood as a time of leisure and rest. The advent of Social Security in the 1930s and extended life expectancy in the postwar period made healthy retirement a real possibility for many Americans for the first time.

Yet, even in this era, it was mostly white American grandparents who experienced a degree of freedom from work, both paid and unpaid. In immigrant families and communities of color, grandparents continued to be regarded as essential members of immediate families, and indeed in many cases primary caregivers of young children.

This moment of freedom and leisure for some grandparents wound down in the 1970s. They became subject to new pressures that once again pulled them into the orbits of their children’s families. With more and more mothers in paid work, and the crisis of child care affordability and availability mounting, increasing numbers of families began to draft grandparents into new roles as caregivers. Rising life expectancy made them available to provide such care. Meanwhile, declining marriage rates and rising divorce rates created more single-parent households in need of additional support. At the same time, growing immigration increased the diversity of American family structures, including more multigenerational families.

A 2008 study of over 500 grandparents found that about 40 percent of those with grandchildren under 13 who lived within an hour’s drive from them were involved in routine child care. While grandparents in the early 21st century tended not to be the exclusive source of child care in American families, they were often key components of the patchwork arrangements families pulled together.

The number of grandparents serving as custodial caregivers of grandchildren has also climbed dramatically in this period alongside rising poverty levels and high rates of single parenting, as well as the growth of the carceral state. We’ve entered an era of intensified grandparenting rising alongside new pressures on parents to do and be it all.

The financial crises of the early 2000s, and now the pandemic, have continued this trend. Whereas in 1980, just 12 percent of Americans lived in the kinds of multigenerational households that were the overwhelming norm in the 19th century, but by 2020, 20 percent did. A 2014 study of employed grandmothers found that 83 percent were providing more care to their grandchildren than their own parents had provided to their children. They were also providing more care than they had expected to offer given that they were also working for pay.

Today, even as grandparents are increasingly involved in child care for their grandchildren, many are actually living farther from grandchildren than ever before. In some ways, long-distance grandparents, too, have been drawn into intensive grandparenting despite physical distance thanks to the ease of communication and, in pre-pandemic times, the relative affordability and accessibility of long-distance travel.

The data makes clear that grandparenthood has changed tremendously since the 1950s. Yet our view of grandparents has largely remained fixed. Though we know that grandparents are often intimately involved in child care and the day-to-day lives of children’s families, they are still more likely to be associated only with the occasional trip to the zoo than with changing diapers, helping with homework or enforcing bedtimes.

Just as they were in the 19th century, grandparents are now commonly expected to help, despite their own need for various kinds of support and assistance. Grandparents, like parents, have borne the costs of the privatization of social needs. They deserve our acknowledgment and support. Only for a brief historical moment, and only for some mostly white and middle-class families, have grandparents been regarded as anything other than ordinary, essential members of households. The pandemic has reminded us of just that: Grandparents are both emotionally and practically bonded to the family.

Sarah Stoller is a writer and historian of women, work and feminism.

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