Get our newsletters

Kathryn Finegan Clark: By the Way -- Important links in the heritage chain

“Hello, Grandma.” It’s a phone call I get frequently, and I just ignore the caller.
My grandsons do not call me Grandma – and at 11 and 5, their voices are not husky.
Does the caller have a caveman mentality? Does he not know that most grandmas, who have called a few bluffs during the decades, tend not to be stupid? Does he not know how important grandmothers have been in the knock-down, drag-out process of evolution?
I didn’t realize it either but just the other day I read a Smithsonian Magazine newsletter article claiming grandmothers were crucial to human evolution. Not a new theory, it was, however, a surprise to me, and yet, when I stopped to think about it, not so much.
The article pointed out that humans are the only primates with the female normally living long after her child-bearing years have ended.
According to a study published a decade ago in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a journal for anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, grandmothers helped our species evolve social skills and longer lives.
The study credits grandmothers with taking “the initial step toward making us who we are” and cites “the under-appreciated evolutionary value of grandmothering.”
It’s a complicated story encompassing thousands of generations. These are my take-aways after reading the study:
Grandmothers have helped us as a society live longer because they can step in as a supplementary caregiver when a younger female has a new baby.
Grandmothers can collect food and feed and care for toddlers before they are able to do that themselves. That care allows mothers to devote themselves to the intensive care of a newborn baby. Human babies, unlike other species, cannot fend for themselves.
Early on in evolution, if a woman gave birth and already had a 2-year-old child, the odds of that toddler surviving were limited by the mother’s need to care for the infant.
The few ancestral females who lived past their childbearing years and helped the younger mother increased the odds of their grandchildren surviving, passing on the genes that favored longer lifespans.
The study concludes, “From an evolutionary perspective, it makes more sense for older females to increase the group’s overall offspring survival rate instead of spending more energy on producing their own.”
Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, who was involved with the study, noted the social relations that accompany grandmothering could also have contributed to the larger brains and other traits that distinguish humans.
In the article, she was quoted as saying, “If you are a chimpanzee, gorilla or orangutan baby, your mom is thinking about nothing but you. But if you are a human baby your mom has other kids she is worrying about and now they have to actively engage her: ‘Mom, pay attention to me!’” That need, she said, “drove the increase in brain size.”
Even though this America of ours is pretty much youth-centered, grandmothers do often save the day.
Now, even in this nuclear world where families often are separated, many of them step in as surrogate mothers to the grandkids while Mom No. 1 is either the family breadwinner or shares that role with her husband.
I was partially reared by a grandmother. My maternal grandmother lived in my childhood home until her death when I was 15. I was the youngest and, as such, was buffeted and teased by my lively siblings, and she was a firm ally and protector. When I was very young, it was often she who wrapped me in a towel after my bath. We were very close and to this day I can recall feeling the hollow spot in my chest when, after she died, I first walked into an empty house when I went home from school.
That’s just the way it was at our house and I now know that’s the way it has been and still is in homes all across America, especially now when many mothers hold dual roles at home and in the marketplace.
And so, one day I found myself racing to New York City. The babysitter, hired for my daughter-in-law’s return to work after family leave, couldn’t start immediately, so I sped to the city to care for a tiny grandson, just one of a long, long line of grandmothers, come full-circle in a 21st-century way.