Last laugh: It’s a nan’s world

The modern granny may end up lumbered with unpaid childcare… but at least she gets to sow a little mischief while she’s at it.
The modern granny may end up lumbered with unpaid childcare… but at least she gets to sow a little mischief while she’s at it .

Apart from free wine and losing weight by accident, there is nothing more wonderful than the concept, and reality, of whanau. The feeling you’re a part of something larger than yourself, a no-questions-asked crowd of people who love you for the flimsiest of genetic reasons. Even if it’s just to follow the progress of your life from a distance, or supply small harbingers of childish greed by sending you $10 every year on your birthday, extended family provide an unspoken social support structure; an octopus of friendly arms. This bonding dates back to prehistoric times: Tyrannosaurus ate your parents? Uncle Rocky’s got your back.

Relationships with your wider family and its collection of odds and sods teach you much about the human condition, while hinting at what might lie beneath your own placid exterior, just waiting to come out. That face Mad Aunty Bridget makes when she’s thinking? You’ve already started doing it. Inherited madness aside, the family member whose role has changed most in recent years is the grandmother.

My paternal nana was simply too nasty to be left alone with any being requiring the necessaries of life and my maternal grandmother too worn out from giving birth to 13 children to be anything but bemused by her innumerable grandchildren and great-grandchildren (70 at last count). Neither felt the need to apologise for it. Back then, grandmothers weren’t glorified babysitters but matriarchs of the La-Z-Boy, briefly amused then utterly bored by the antics of their children’s children, ‘go outside and play’ the limit of their evolutionary input.

Nowadays, though, grandmothers have assumed a vital role in the life of double-income-massive-mortgage households, creating a gaping chasm between hands-on and once-in-a-while grandmas. As Eleanor Mills wrote in a Sunday newspaper article titled ‘Granny Wars’, “The more detached mode of grandparenting can cause friction. If you have the kind of parents who prefer to gad around the world, are still wrapped up in their careers/interests and don’t see providing free childcare as a key part of retirement, you are bound to envy a friend or sibling with a different kind of grandparental service.”

Need seems the cause of considerable guilt-tripping, and Mills tells of one ‘selfless’ grandmother commuting an hour to sleep on her son’s sofa during the week, looking after her grandsons while he and his wife go out to work. Another is so detached she’s visited her daughter’s family once in 18 months. “I reckoned on 20 years of motherhood,” says this globe-trotting granny. “I raised my kids to fly. Now it’s my turn.”

I don’t know if I’m looking forward to being called ‘Grandma’ myself, although it’s a lot less accusatory than ‘Muuuum!’ And while I’m probably too selfish and lazy to put much effort in, I have, of late, developed a taste for other people’s babies (cuddling, not eating), a sure sign my child-rearing PTSD has worn off. If you don’t drop them, their parents will let you squeeze their fat little legs for hours. “Being a grandmother is great!” says my own mum, who’d have taken the pennant in the Grandmother Wars, displayed the other grandmothers’ heads on pikes and mounted the iron throne. “Grandparents are that much further away from the gut-churning worry that is being a parent,” she says. “You’ve given birth to that creature and you’re forever tied, dammit. Every hurt they feel, you feel too. It’s dreadful, being a mother. But being a grand-parent, on the other hand…” her eyes took on a toffee-apple gleam. For a moment she reminded me of the witch in Hansel and Gretel – she had a candy house and she wasn’t afraid to use it. Which brings us to spoiling.

“Don’t,” says the mother. “Don’t tell mum,” says the grandmother. Grandparents are legendary for love largesse, buying too many or inappropriate gifts (‘of course you can have an Uzi’), being too permissive, loading the kids up with crap food and handing them back just as the additives start to kick in. Conflict is generated by grandparents who refuse to uphold the parents’ standards for behaviour, which, as my mother has just hinted, is one of the more enjoyable tenets of the role.

But for every parent who complains about over-indulgence, there’s one who wishes their kids got more attention. And spare a thought for the grandmothers of Portugal, missing out on the chance to work up a little sugar rush. The country’s birth rate is so low, a maternity hospital in Lisbon was recently slated to close, a move only averted by the protests of incensed grannies-in-waiting, refusing to give up hope their daughters will do the right thing and give them a small person to ruin.

Words by: Lisa Scott

Photographs by: Getty Images

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