The five-year-old Max drives to his grandparents with his brother. They live in a huge house with an even larger garden, are incredibly patient, careful and good-natured, and always feel like playing with their grandchildren. Of course, Grandma wears a brisk short haircut and lovingly cares for the two little rascals after Grandpa has worked extensively with them in the garage.
These are grandparents like in a picture book – in this case, indeed, this scene comes from the Pixie booklet published in 2012 Max drives to grandma and grandpato prepare children for a visit to grandparents. This grandparent picture of history aptly illustrates how grandparents like to be portrayed. The grosseltern.de online portal has the subtitle The best for my grandchildren, And grandparents are celebrated on social media: on the YouTube channel of the influencer Bibi Heinicke under her video classic My grandma explains the internet, in which Bibi's white-haired picture-book grandma explains her unknown terms, is teeming with "Your grandma is so cute" comments and little smileys.
But how often do picture book grandparents really exist? In a Forsa survey published in December 2019 on behalf of the insurer CosmosDirekt among 1,000 grandparents aged 50 and over, 46 percent stated that they support their children and grandchildren in everyday life: for example as a pick-up service or with homework. According to this study, 49 percent regularly spend free time with their grandchildren.
That's nice. Very nice indeed – although the discussions in parent forums, columns and tips in educational guides show that this support from the grandparents is not always as harmonious as our picture of the loving grandmother would have expected. However, the more important question is: what about the other half of the grandparents? The narrow majority who cannot, do not, or are not allowed to provide this kind of support for grandchildren – and of course also for their own children? Why is there so little talk about problems in grandparent-parent-grandchild relationships that prevent active grandparenthood? Or about other forms of grandparenthood that do not correspond to the image of people who have been married for ages, always helping and looking after?
They also exist, the grandparents who have a busy private life with friends, hobbies, travel or volunteer work and simply don't feel like giving up on it for the benefit of their grandchildren. Who are sick and cannot take care of themselves. Or those who are not allowed to see granddaughters because there are arguments with children or children-in-law. What about the grandparents who have done violence to their own children or grandchildren? And what about divorced grandparents, social or step-grandparents? These grandparents are largely invisible, although they must exist: after all, the divorce rate in Germany was 28.4 percent in 1980.
Like many of our ideas about family, our ideas about grandparenthood – primarily grandmotherhood – go back to the bourgeois family image of the 18th century. During this time, not only did the ideal of the middle-class small family with fixed roles for fathers (family breadwinners) and mothers (housewife) emerge, but also the image of the loving grandmother, who crocheted hats is sitting on the rocking chair and tells the little fairy tales. Back then, not just with a brisk short haircut, but with an upright bun. Before the 18th century, grandparenthood was not widespread due to the short life expectancy of people – until the 17th century, only 10 percent of people experienced grandparenthood, writes historian Dr. Juliane Haubold-Stollen in her book Grandma is the best. A cultural history of grandma,
But like the bourgeois idea of ideal housewife motherhood, the ideal of the caring grandmother was reserved for privileged women until the 20th century. Grandmothers who had to work in agriculture, for example, tended to their grandchildren on the side, writes Haubold-Stolle. The perfect grandma, so she is not just the product of a rather short historical range, but just that: an idealized picture that older women more or less corresponded to.
And grandfathers? Grandfathers seldom appeared in the role of carers historically anyway; an exception is the Alm-Öhi from Johanna Spyris world-famous Heidi– Novels from 1880 and 1881, a cranky hermit, who, living together with his orphaned granddaughter, becomes a loving grandfather and philanthropist against his will. Today, grandfathers seem to care more if you follow the Forsa study mentioned earlier, which has shown that grandfathers' participation in grandchildren was as high as that of grandmothers.
The roles and family responsibilities of grandparents have changed in recent decades, as has the polarizing debate about the satirical children's song My grandma is riding a motorcycle in the chicken coop showed, known as #Omagate. The line "My grandmother is an old environmental pig", which sparked the debate, can rightly be criticized as lack of taste or age discrimination. However, the fact that right-wing groups want the text to be understood as an attack on a kind of national sanctuary can only be understood if one understands that the idealized image of a grandmother is still effective today. So it's time to finally paint a multi-faceted and realistic picture of grandparenthood.