Biology, psychology and external family and social systems all affect grandparenting identity and activity. One biological event, the birth of a grandchild, initiates the basis of grandparenthood, the “grandparent drive.” The function of this drive is to activate the latent grandparent identity and transform it into a functional grandparent identity. Many grandparents agree that the drive to have a grandchild is similar to the drive to have a child, with the only difference being one generation removed.
Gorlitz(1982) studied some of the intrapsychic experiences accompanying the transition into grandparenthood of 28 grandparents just prior to and from 15-18 months after the birth of a grandchild. Two central themes were identified: conflicts precipitated by grandparenthood, and the repair of injuries and the reworking of earlier issues through the use of generativity.
Five areas of conflict were aging anxiety, tension over lack of control in grandparenthood, competition with the various members of the multi-generational drama, pressure to relinquish the comfort of retirement and parental responsibility, and tension from intrapersonal factors. The “reparative” aspects of grandparent were pleasure in generativity, a chance to make up for past parenting mistakes both with children and grandchildren, and positive self-esteem and identification.
Studying the Grandparent Drive
During our Grandparent Study, grandparents and grandchildren reported more than culturally learned factors as responsible for the quality of their relationship. In an attempt to explore these ephemeral factors, we initiated a study to examine the nature-nurture aspects that affect the grandparent-grandchild relationship.
For this qualitative study we interviewed 240 grandparent subjects, 160 women and 120 men, from 1990 to 1993. Subjects were interviewed at senior centers, schools and the Grandparent-Grandchild Summer Camp.
The results of this study showed that 83% of the subjects mentioned one or more of the following factors related to emotion, continuity, meaning and role fulfillment: “love for the grandchild,” “love of family,” “personal meaning,” “spiritual meaning,” “a need to be a grandparent,” “joyfulness,” “the meaning of life,” “a need to be a part of a grandchild’s life,” and the “need to protect.”
Other subjects mentioned modeling their grandparents (“taking after a grandparent”), and an interest in social standing (“prestige, people look up to me”) as the most important determinant in their grandparenting behavior. All subjects reported influencing forces (family systems, distance, work, age, health, etc.) as affecting the quality and effectiveness of grandparenting. In open discussion, all agree that good relationships with their own children were necessary to have access to grandchildren.
A majority of grandparents (92%) ascribed the primary motivation of their grandparenting behavior to the presence of a grandparenting need or instinct awoken by their love and need for attachment to their grandchild. Many grandparents in fact described this feeling as a “drive.”
This idea of a primary, biologically-rooted “drive” to grandparent is useful when denoting the biological force behind grandparenting. When asked about the origins of their drive, one grandmother said her drive came “from something inside me. There’s no words for it.” Yet another grandmother described her drive as “life itself.”
With few exceptions, subjects agreed that influencing factors were important determinants of how they grandparent. The drive, however, was identified as the most important factor in being an involved grandparent. “If you don’t have the grandparent urge,” a grandfather said, “nothing can make you get close to your grandchild. Wanting to have a grandchild is just like wanting to have a kid when you’re young.”
None of the grandparents we interviewed directly refuted the existence of a grandparent drive. A minority (8%), however, qualified their own attraction to grandparenthood as initially “weak,” but reported that a drive to become more involved in the role strengthened when they became emotionally closer to their grandchildren.
A grandmother in this group said, “I really didn’t care if I had children or grandchildren. But once my children and grandchildren came along I loved them. Now I couldn’t bear the thought of not having them.”
To sum up, grandparents in this study report a natural need or “drive” that motivates their grandparenting. They place secondary emphasis on the forces of socially learned behaviors and attitudes. They also recognize that good relationships with their own children enhanced access to their grandchildren.
The concept of a basic drive to grandparent explains why certain grandparents struggle so hard to have contact with their grandchildren despite personal, social or geographic barriers. It further explains why grandparents who don’t see their grandchildren frequently love them at a distance and still feel emotionally close to them. It also explains the mirror-image reflection of this need for attachment in grandchildren.
Although there is little hard scientific, clinical evidence to support the concept of a grandparenting drive, personal experience, human behavior, case studies and qualitative interview data supports the idea. Experience has shown that people exhibit different drives and needs for other people. Attachment theory, which is based on human and animal studies (Rosenblatt, 1967, Redican & Mitchell, 1972), have explained many aspects of the parent-child bond. Why can’t we extend this model to grandparents and grandchildren? If a baby’s smile, for example, induces approach and caretaking behavior in the mother, why shouldn’t this apply to grandparents as well?
Fulfilled attachment brings happiness. Separation brings pain. When a grandparent is separated from a grandchild, it can be experienced as an emotional loss and a lack of fulfillment of a grandparenting drive. Certain subjects in the Grandparent Study have overcome substantial obstacles to be close to their grandchildren. Perhaps these grandparents have a stronger drive than those who move away from their families to retire, for example.
During an interview, one long-distance grandfather said, “I think about my grandchildren all the time. But they live 1,000 miles away. I have to force myself to stop calling.”
Variable from Person to Person
Although a grandparenting drive may be present, it is not necessarily consciously perceived by all grandparents before their grandchildren are born. Those with a strong latent grandparent identity report a mental rehearsal for grandparenting which is usually manifested in joyful fantasies about being with their future grandchild. Grandparents who reported no thoughts of being a grandparent before the arrival of their grandchild, often experience the feeling of a drive to grandparent after the birth.
Expression of the grandparent drive is qualified and shaped by a host of personal influencing factors as well as family and social systems. The interaction of both drive and influencing factors determines the individual’s conscious perception of the drive.