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Maternal Grandparents vs Paternal Grandparents


Maternal vs Paternal

BY VICTORIA BISSELL BROWN

Carmen Ruiz whispered, “I would not advise you to write this, but it seems to me that there’s always a closer relationship with the mother’s side.”

I was in the middle of my interview with Carmen about being a granddaughter in the 1950s and a grandmother today. The audio recording catches my burst of laughter at that moment. I understood Carla’s whisper; I knew this maternal grandmother’s advantage was a sensitive subject. But I had already interviewed 65 women, so I also knew that there was no way to step around the topic; maternal grandmothers’ advantage loomed too large in granddaughters’ memories. I could not explain grandmothers’ relationships with mothers, fathers, or grandchildren if I left that advantage out of my book about Nana in the Fifties.

“I knew this maternal grandmother’s advantage was a sensitive subject. But I had already interviewed 65 women, so I also knew that there was no way to step around the topic;”

Fully three-quarters of the women I interviewed had felt more at home with their maternal grandmothers than with their paternals. Most of them liked their paternal grandmothers, but the fifty women with two grandmothers were more comfortable with their maternal grandmothers, felt more familiar with them, told many more stories about them, knew more about their maternals’ family histories, work histories, marriages, health, and deaths. In interview after interview, granddaughters described their maternal grandmothers as “fun-loving,” “energetic,” “easy-going,” and “outgoing.” Many paternals were described with words never used for maternals: “reserved,” “withdrawn,” and “emotionally distant.”  Maternal grandmothers were also more apt to be physically affectionate. Only a third of these Fifties granddaughters called their grandmothers by some special name like Mema, Tita, Muz, or Mimsey, but well over two-thirds of those cozy names went to maternal grandmothers.

Maternal grandmothers in my group were not younger than paternals, not more wealthy, not more widowed, averaged no fewer children or grandchildren, did not live geographically closer, and did not see their grandchildren more often.  Only eleven of the interviewees witnessed or later learned of hostility between their mothers and paternal grandmothers. These women did not favor their maternals because those grandmothers had taken them on vacations attended all their ball games or given them fantastic gifts. None of that stuff made a difference. (502)

So what did moms’ mothers do in the Fifties to gain the advantage? What was their performance edge?

“The mother-daughter bond is still strong, but it no longer dictates the emotional distance between grandchildren and paternal grandmothers.”

Maternal grandmothers were two times more likely to operate as “providers” for their adult children’s families, stepping up in times of need; and maternal grandmothers dominated the role of “kinkeeper,” the person who regularly brought adult children, their spouses, and their children altogether.

Providers

Granddaughters in the 1950s saw their maternal grandmothers providing domestic help when mom had a new baby, housing mom, and the kids when dad was fighting in Korea, moving into the kids’ house when mom was suddenly widowed, or providing food and school shoes when dad lost his job.  Fifties moms asked their maternal grandmothers for help in tough times because mutual care was the insurance plan built into lifelong female bonds with sisters, mothers, aunts, and grannies. The result?  Fifties granddaughters grew up feeling that their maternal grandmothers cared more about them, and were more devoted to their welfare than paternals.

Kinkeepers

Maternal grandmothers in the Fifties were far more likely than paternals to host Sunday dinners, holiday celebrations, summer picnics, and week-long family visits. And parents were far more likely to pile the kids into the car for a trip to the maternal grandmother’s house than to the paternal’s. This meant that grandchildren got to play with their cousins at the maternal grandmother’s house and could sit amidst a group of maternal kinfolk telling family stories. Maternal grandmothers did not gain their advantage by being out in the yard pitching baseballs, snuggling babies, or having long talks with an individual grandchild; they were too busy in the kitchen for any of that.  Granddaughters felt more attached to their kinkeeping maternal grandmothers because they were the ones associated with the fun of playing with cousins and with a deep sense of family identity, of “us-ness.”

Declining maternal advantage

The maternal grandmother advantage that Carmen Ruiz whispered about has dimmed (not vanished) since the 1950’s because social change has weakened its causes.

My interviewees taught me that working parents today are in far greater need of grandmother providers for regular childcare, and they are just as grateful for the paternal as the maternal who offers such help.  As well, fathers are much more engaged with children and family today than in the Fifties, creating more openings for paternal grandmothers to operate as kinkeepers. Adult siblings are less likely these days to gather regularly with all the cousins; grandmothers now tend to see each child’s family separately and that levels the playing field between maternal and paternal grandmothers. The mother-daughter bond is still strong, but it no longer dictates the emotional distance between grandchildren and paternal grandmothers.

Grandmothers have a history.  Our role is not fixed. We are as affected by changing times as everyone else. So while maternal grandmothers still have an edge, paternal grandmothers today have a better chance of providing and kinkeeping than at any time in the past.

Whether it is maternal or paternal grandmother, they all give a lot to each family in different ways. So we need to express our warm love to them in a unique way, and we can also customize exquisite gifts to them, such as various shapes or Custom Cufflinks with photos. Customcufflinks.com offers a variety of logos, symbols and even miniature portraits to choose from, making it a unique love.

So we need to express our warm love to them in a unique way, and we
can also customize exquisite gifts to them, such as various shapes or Custom Cufflinks
with photos.

Victoria Brown

About the author

Victoria Bissell Brown retired in 2014 from teaching American history at Grinnell College in Iowa. She and her husband moved to Havertown, PA., where they are down-the-street (maternal)  grandparents for their three grandchildren and Victoria works on her Nana-in-the-Fifties book.

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