The Grandmother Problem


Grandmother problems. Do you have them? For example a grandmother unable to let a new parent learn how to take care of their own baby, in their own way. or a new parent using their new role to get back at a mother they think did everything wrong by rejecting all offers of help or advice. Or perhaps adult children feeling entitled to use grandma as an always on-call childcare service. It could be simply that as a new parent or grandparent you feel an increased in tension or conflict… 

I’ve discovered some 60+ year old advice on how to avoid or reduce The Grandmother Problem that is just as applicable today as it was when it was written in the 1950s. 

When it comes to the grandmother problem some anthropologists asked the question: why do grandmothers even exist? And their answer became the “grandmother hypothesis”… meant to explain why female humans don’t drop dead soon after menupause: by living beyond our reproductive years ostensibly with experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and rearing young children– and no longer having the physical burden of them, we are able to support our offspring as they have theirs, thereby ensuring our genetic legacy– those who live longer after menupause are likely to have their traits conserved in the evolution. But the hypothesis has many detractors and there are alternate theories to explain our longevity… topic for another time. But if we accept some or all of this hypothesis, then it is the grandmother’s involvement (or interference) that helps ensure the survival of her grandchildren… so where’s the problem?

Eighteen years after [Made for Each Other] came out, Tinka D. Engel, a former psychiatric social worker, wrote about the Grandmother Problem in the March 1956 issue of Parents magazine. That’s around three years before my own mother was born. Mrs Engel is of my own grandmother’s generation, writing about my great-grandmother’s generation. Based on her professional and personal experience, the grandmother problem is an issue of too much dependence or insecure independence and competiveness but it can be avoided or remedied with self-awareness, empathy, and emotional maturity. I think her reflections and advice are timeless and can be applied today, not just between mothers and grandmothers, but between parents and anyone who develops a caregiver relationship with their child. 

Why I wanted to do a read-along of this article (and others from this era):

I have been reading a lot of popular magazines from the 1940s and 50s for other research projects. I had expected to read articles that would be quaint at best and perhaps even offensive at worse. But that’s not what I am finding. I have found articles on climate change, how children learn prejudice, about SIDS before they had the term SIDS, advances in neonatal heart surgery and the future of replacement limbs or organs built from one’s own cells, about causes and treatments for heartburn, for childhood anxiety and juvenile delinquency, and about how the federal government can work to improve public education and welfare for all children– and many of the authors are women and highly educated, employed mothers a generation before third wave feminism.

But more than the subject matter is the writing that has surprised me the most: as I read these articles I feel more informed, I feel more compassion towards others, encouragement to consider all sides of an argument– and I feel a combination of a positive challenge to be a better person while also feeling comforted and respected by the author. I can’t say that I have felt that about any mass-market publication I have read in, oh… at least the last twenty years. I suspect it had something to do with the writers in this era having first hand experience with identity politics combining with fascism and/or authoritarian regimes and its inevitable resulting horrors. These writers and journalists were people writing with social cohesion (I expected to find conformity, but I haven’t) and public education in mind, two of the most important ingredients for a functional democracy in an era when they keenly felt the threats to democracy. (Note: I’m in no way excusing McCarthyism, that was just as much a threat to democracy as anything.)

A lot has changed in the world since then, there’s television of course, then cable and satellite tv, and the internet and social media. Today, cultural critics argue that the “dumbing down” of society and the rise of “outrage journalism” (I wouldn’t call it journalism) was caused by the shift from subscription-based journalism to advertiser based journalism (network based news to cable news). But there were plenty of advertisements in these magazines (often for the same kinds of things I see today online and with the same marketing gimmicks). Even subscription-based magazines can engage in “outrage journalism” if that’s what subscribers want. Others say that the shift from print to screen has done it and I think there’s something to this. I am old enough to have been an adult with physical magazine and newspaper subscriptions before they were accessible online. When I had the physical object I didn’t just read the headlines or the one or two articles that supported what I already believed– I read almost everything in the issue, learning about things and perspectives I hadn’t considered. And I found myself doing this very thing while flipping through the bound magazine archives. Not great for time management but good for the mind.


Engel, Tinka D. March 1956. “Do you have grandmother problems?” Parents.

More information about the Grandmother Hypothesis:

[the OG] Hamilton, W.D. Sep 1966. “The moulding of senescence by natural selection.” J. Theorectical Biology 12(1), p 12-45. [only $30 per 48hrs of academic and personal use via Elsevier]

Hawkes, K, et al. Feb 1998. “Grandmothering, menopause, and the evolution of humanlife histories.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95 p1336-1339

Hawkes, K and James E Coxworth. 2013. “Grandmothers and the Evolution of Human
Longevity: A Review of Findings and Future Directions.”
Evolutionary Anthropology 22, p 294-302.

Herndon, James G. Jan 2010. “The Grandmother Effect: Implications for Studies on Aging and Cognition.” Gerontology 56(1), p 73-79

Peccei, J.S.. Jul 2001. “A Critique of the Grandmother Hypotheses: Old and New.” Am. J. of Human Biology 13, p434-452

Watkins, Aja. Aug 2021. “Reevaluating the grandmother hypothesis.” History Philosophy Life Sciences 43(3). [not open source either]

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