Grandmothers

It takes a village to raise a child, so says the adage.

Or a grandmother, according to anthropologist Dr. Kristen Hawkes at the University of Utah.

Her thesis is as follows: grandmothers perform “motherly” duties, such as feeding and tending young children, thereby allowing mothers more time to forage for food and more energy to have more children. She developed this hypothesis while working with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer society in Tanzania. Hadza mothers were able to forage for food and care for a child as long as they had only one child. The birth of a second child limited the mother’s ability to both forage and care for the existing child, and that’s when Grandmother stepped in to help.

From this hypothesis, Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers were a significant factor in the evolution of modern Homo sapiens because a grandmother enabled the birth of more descendants thereby increasing the probability of her genes surviving in subsequent generations. This, in turn, led to slower aging and increased longevity. Her reasoning is complex (you can read more about it here).

Another study published last year in Current Biology argues that the ability of grandmothers to be able to participate in child care was dependent on geographic proximity. The authors examined familial data from 17th and 18th century St. Lawrence River region (now the Province of Quebec). They found that the presence of a grandmother not only increased the size of the family but also the number of children surviving to age 15 (read about their study here).

Grandmothers did more than look after children. They were essential as midwives to help bring children safely into the world. Childbirth is one of the most deadly periods of a young woman’s life. It’s impossible to say what the death rate per 1000 live births was when we lived the hunter-gatherer life, but statistics from 18th century Europe and the USA paint a deadly picture. In England, the death rate was 10.5 per 1000 live births, dropping to 7.5 deaths in the last half of the 18th century. It was just as deadly in the United States, about 12 deaths per 1000 births, dropping to about 6 deaths per 1000 births in the 19th century. Even today, it is still the sixth most common cause of death among women aged 20 to 34. So, grandmothers who had survived childbirth knew from experience how to help their daughters successfully give birth.

Grandmothers were also the keepers of stories and traditions and knowledge (so are grandfathers, but sorry, men, this post is about grandmothers). These wise old women had seen it all; they’d lived through childbirth and disease, possibly even famine and war. They knew how to negotiate difficult situations and how to survive in times of scarcity. They were a pillar of security and confidence in an otherwise insecure world.

Unfortunately, our modern world has removed most of us from our grandmother’s sphere of care and influence. The need to move to where work is has splintered families across countries and continents. Social media provides one means of keeping in touch, but it’s no substitute for sitting snuggled up to your Granny while she reads you a story or feeds you your favourite cookies in defiance of your mother’s edicts or shows you photographs from the “old days.” Social media don’t allow you to have a sleep-over at her place, or help her weed her garden, or hug her or be hugged by her.

Grandma Hanna with baby Margaret

Like most kids growing up in the 1950s in prairie villages and towns who had their grandparents nearby, our paternal grandmother, Addie Hanna, lived only a quarter-mile from our farm, in the village of Meyronne. She played a significant role in our lives: she looked after us when Mother was in the hospital, we went to her little house after school for milk and cookies and a visit, I learned to ride a bike in her back yard, and we often slept over at her house just because we could. We had Sunday dinner at her place, or she at ours. She sat with us in church, she tolerated us at Ladies’ Aid meetings that Mom dragged us along to, and she tut-tutted over what she viewed as inappropriate behaviour. She was just “There,” and it wasn’t until I left for university that I learned how unusual it was to have a grandmother so close to hand.

Addie Hanna, ca. 1955

Perhaps that is the reason I decided to have her “narrate” my book, Our Bull’s Loose in Town!: Tales from the Homestead. It is a way of honouring all she lived through and all she contributed to our lives.

Thanks, Grandma.

#Grandmothers #Childbirth #ChildCare #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #MargaretGHanna

One thought on “Grandmothers

  1. That’s the hardest part of the pandemic is not being able to snuggle them. We still do outside stuff and I’m lucky they are farm kids who are growing up outside but still it’s hard not hugging and reading books in person and sleepovers.

    Like

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