Grandma ≠ Retirement

National Grandparents Day, September 9, 2012, just slipped by unnoticed this year.  Nonetheless, I have been thinking a lot about grandparenthood recently; Alison Rose was born on Sept. 14, joining her five-year-old brother Jacob as my two grandchildren.  It is clear that Grandmother ≠ Retirement.  I am not the only working grandmother who cannot be there when the baby is born, who must content herself with a visit several weeks later when I will juggle department meetings and student requests via email and Skype.  And I am the fortunate one with a flexible job and a sympathetic department chair.  Many grandmothers both work and parent their grandchildren—definitely not retirement!

Still, there is a connection between grandparenting and retirement, and it’s one I find somewhat disconcerting.  I see it so clearly on the National Grandparents Day website (and in the critiques of the fashions created by the designers on “Project Runway”).

Listen to this clip of the national song for the day at

Johnny Prill’s lyrics describe grandparents as adults with time on their hands, ones who do special, fun, things with their grandkids, as in Verse One:  “Going to a ball game, fishing on the lake/Eating Grandma’s cookies, boy they sure taste great/Going to the circus when it comes to town/Eating cotton candy and laughing at the clowns.”  Aside from setting up unrealistic expectations for the grandchildren, it seems as though these grandparents have retired from employment that limits leisure time and demands scheduled attendance.  How else could grandparents offer to provide all these great experiences?  They have a condition more often associated with youth, one marked by undisciplined fun, energy, excitement, and minimal responsibility, a condition they share with their grandkids.   The judges on “Project Runway,” in contrast, refer to creations they find objectionable as matronly, sad, depressing, and unimaginative –clothes (and personality) more suitable for droopy women at the age of retirement than for a fashionista.

I am feeling whiplash because either way I turn, neither “grandmother” nor “retirement” signifies a wise, mature, engaged woman who can add something to her grandchildren’s lives beyond cotton candy and cookies (though I do love baking cookies!).   The roles allotted to me as grandmother are the same (unrealistic and unacceptable) dichotomous choices that have marked younger women throughout history – the angel in the home v. the bitch/drudge/hag in the workplace; Purity v. Jezebel, and so on, and so on. I know there were Native American cultures in which women earned respected tribal status as they aged.  Doesn’t it suggest that a key to the problem of irrelevance at retirement is a relationship between generations built on a respectful portraiture, and not on national holidays?  And a culture that does not infantilize people at both ends of life?

Alison Rose, granddaughter              Bernice Baublitz Williams, grandmother