The Grandmother Hypothesis

Image by Guillermo Vuljevas from Pixabay

A grandmother to eleven and great-grandmother to two is more than enough reason to ponder what my role is with these children. I remind myself that my kids are living their own lives, so my work should be done. But that’s not how it feels. Women’s longevity is thirty and forty years past menopause, well beyond raising children. Killer whales, like Homo sapiens, live long past the age of reproduction. And Killer whale grandmas have a significant impact on the survival of their grand-whales, protecting and feeding them. 

Living in a patriarchal system, I accepted the “Man the Hunter” theory. Our long-ago male ancestors stalked the game, killed and butchered it, then brought it home to the clan to feed the families. Kristen Hawkes and other anthropologists uncovered a different story, now called the “Grandmother Hypotheses.” Studying modern hunter-gatherers in northern Tanzania, Hawkes discovered that like Killer whales, the grandmothers brought home most of the food, ensuring the survival of the young.

Over several lengthy field visits, Hawkes and her colleagues kept track of how much food family members contributed. The men went out most days and managed to get big animals “exactly 3.4 percent” of the time. If our primitive ancestors depended on meat to survive, they would have starved. Turns out that women were providing the majority of calories for the family, digging out deeply buried tubers. A child’s growth depended on the mother’s success digging out tubers. But the well-being of subsequent children—mom busy taking care of young ones— depended on the grandmas and how much food they gathered. “Grandmothers were more important to child survival than fathers” in a foraging society. 

My grandchildren live in consumer and tech societies on different continents and in four different U.S. states. Grandkids (blood and adoptive) don’t look to me for calories. So, what is my task, if any, as their Amma (grandmother)?

My youngest daughter and her family are visiting us for a week. On one of those days, everyone except my 11-year-old granddaughter are going fishing. Andrea, excited to spend the day with me, asked me, “Are you going to plan a surprise?” I don’t think she means me reading in the shade while she splashes in the pool. So here I was, asking myself, what do I have to offer to this grandchild? Material goods or externals are not in my warehouse of legacy aspirations. The moments I have with her alone are rare, and I want them to be meaningful, something she will remember and benefit from in small ways.

After much rumination, I had an idea, actually, two ideas. I called my friend Deborah, an artist, asking if she would show Andrea how to draw or paint a picture of her dog, Doc, that was hit and killed by a car. It was a sorrowful moment in Andrea’s young life. This could be a way to celebrate her memory of Doc through her favorite activity, art. My second idea was to introduce her to FIKA, a Scandinavian social. She’d make the dessert and host a FIKA for some spunky older women, her Amma’s friends. For the rest of her life, she could host FIKAs with friends, creating stories about her life’s journey.  

In this time of tech addiction, we can pass on what engages us. Even when kids act as if they are indifferent or uninterested in what we offer, we are planting seeds that may sprout long after we are gone. We get caught up in daily routines, and before we know it, they are all grown up, and opportunities to create memorable moments are over. RoadScholar, although expensive, offers adventures suited to different ages. But time together doesn’t have to be costly. Walking with four-year-old grandson Kai, never rushing him as he picked up and explored, it seemed, every stick, rock, and worm is one of our best-shared memories. Four years later, we still talk about it.  


2 thoughts on “The Grandmother Hypothesis

  1. Such wise teaching that I’ll carry with me this summer when I’m with my “grandchildren” in MT. ❤️ Beth

    Sent from my iPhone


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  2. Wow!! I made it into your blog!!! I hope I can be the teacher I used to be… to help bring out the joy and creativity that we know Andrea has 💕 Looking forward to all of it!!

    So glad I can respond to your posts. Before, I couldn’t sign in or comment.

    Sent from my iPhone, Deborah Lightfield


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