Mothers and Grandmothers

By Randy Jackson

As far as I know, in all cultures of the world, motherhood is revered. Pretty well every female I’ve ever known has become a mother. At the same time, every female I’ve ever known has a radically different personality from every other one. Any behavior one might associate with motherhood is not always present before a woman actually becomes a mother. So if I had to explain the human cultural concept of reverence of motherhood to an alien, for example, I would have to say the emotional bond between a mother and her offspring causes certain universal behaviors of mothers towards their offspring, and it’s those universal behaviors we associate with motherhood that are so revered in all human cultures.

All this seems so basic and is such commonly held knowledge that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Except this is just one perspective, the Adult Perspective. There are other perspectives at other (younger) life stages that can take very different views on motherhood.

Think about what reponse you might get about mothers and motherhood if you interviewed a group of young teenage girls out in the winter without a jacket, smoking, and wearing black lipstick. I don’t know what their response would be, but I’d bet motherhood would be seen as something less than universally warm and cuddly. We all know of normal non-goth kids who at a certain age when out in public with their parents, hide when they see someone from their class, no doubt not wanting to be mistaken as offspring of such creatures as they have for parents.

I’m more familiar with the perspective of motherhood from my years of boyhood. Take, for example, a group of 8-year-old boys who, say, accidentally started a forest fire or borrowed Mr. Gibson’s fishing boat to use as a toboggan. The idea of going home to some universal motherhood reaction was incomprehensible. Mothers were authority figures plain and simple. An authority somehow understood, even to these boys at that time, to be uniquely shaped by the personality of the individual mother. Each one of those hypothetical boys knew exactly what he and his friends faced at home from their mothers.

At the same time, each one of those boys would also know that things would be different if their grandmother happened to be visiting. Grandmothers, in their age-acquired wisdom, know their grandchildren are always completely innocent. “It’s not his fault, it’s those other boys,” they might say to bring the true facts to the table. This brings me to my point: Motherhood isn’t universally loved by all, but grandmotherhood is.

A universal defining characteristic of grandmotherhood is that of “amused tolerance.” They see their grandchildren for who they are, not what they want them to be. Grandmothers are at least mildly amused by almost any behavior, even behavior not condoned by the mother. Mothers can too easily conflate any minor misbehavior as the road to dropping out of school and doing meth. Grandmothers believe in the lyric of John Prine’s song “Dear Abby”: “You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t.”

Grandmothers have lots of sayings. My grandma used to have some of her own sayings that seemed a bit weird, like, “What’s good for the goose is good for grandad,” which I always thought meant whatever a goose would eat, grandpa would like. Although I guess it made some sense, as grandpa ate head cheese, which I thought was gross, but believed a goose would probably eat it too.

Even the authority mothers have over just about anyone doesn’t extend to grandmothers. Rules like “Don’t feed them ice cream and cake at four in the afternoon, they won’t eat supper and are hyper crazy for hours,” are blatantly disregarded, without even the slightest fear of consequences, by grandmothers.

In evolutionary science, there is something called the Grandmother Effect Hypothesis. This theory posits that human longevity can be attributed at least in part to grandmothers. It comes from the idea that post-menopausal women continue to help their family gather food and care for their children. This has made, over evolutionary time, a genetic lineage of families with helpful grandmothers which makes them more able to survive. I have often wondered why grandmothers are always trying to overfeed their grandchildren. Who knew it was genetic?

Motherhood is of course a biological precondition of grandmotherhood, but it takes years of living, experience, not to mention learning to bake, that slowly transforms an individual mother into a universally loved grandmother.