The Grandmother Principles

The Grandmother Principles

by Suzette Haden Elgin

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Suzette Haden Elgin, an experienced grandmother of ten, covers all aspects of grandmothering, including mediating family arguments; learning the art of growing old gracefully; saying no without feeling guilty; coping with emergencies; managing resources - money, time, and energy; being a long-distance grandmother; keeping the family history; and teaching crafts to…  See more details below


Suzette Haden Elgin, an experienced grandmother of ten, covers all aspects of grandmothering, including mediating family arguments; learning the art of growing old gracefully; saying no without feeling guilty; coping with emergencies; managing resources - money, time, and energy; being a long-distance grandmother; keeping the family history; and teaching crafts to grandchildren. Dozens of sidebars provide invaluable tips on topics as diverse as traveling with kids, wonderful gifts that can be made on a copying machine, and the best grandparenting sites on the Internet.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
According to the author, "Grandmother skills" are disappearing because in our highly mobile society, women may now remain in the workforce or live far from their grandchildren. Elgin (The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense), herself a grandmother to 10, attempts to fill this gap by providing grandmothers of all types and ages with this chatty and good-natured guide to successful grandmothering. Included among Elgin's 21 sensible principles are advice for mediating family disputes, tips for helping grandchildren with money problems while maintaining one's own financial solvency, as well as the importance of passing down family myths and stories to the next generation. Elgin also discusses family crises or illnesses when it may become necessary for a grandmother to take over the running of the household of one of her children (whom she coyly refers to as a "chadult"). Elgin firmly believes that once the emergency is over, a grandmother must return the household to the parents as soon as possible and gracefully return home. Elgin includes lots of nitty gritty advice but most of her book is aimed at reminding readers how to give families the advantage of their experience without giving in to the frailties of age. Editor, Jackie Decter; agent, Jeff McCartney. Author tour. (Sept.)
"This book is both practical and fun to read....If you know a new grandmother, this book would certainly make a good gift—or, you could make a gift of it to yourself!" (Southern Lifestyles)Suzette Haden Elgin, author of the best-selling Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series, has a Ph.D. in linguistics and is a novelist and poet as well. She lives in Arkansas.

Product Details

Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date:
For the Family Series
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

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Read an Excerpt


When Sheila Kitzinger wrote Becoming A Grandmother, she didn't just do it off the top of her head. She thoroughly investigated the grandmother role all over this wide world, with the help of many real grandmothers, and she discovered:

In most traditional cultures, grandmothers are people of immense importance and authority.

That has a lovely ring to it, don't you think? At the moment, however, grandmothers in the "Western" world can only look at that sentence, sigh, and say, "They are? Well, good for them! "

Not that there are no grandmothers in our cultures who are people of immense importance and authority. Of course there are. But it's an individual matter, and one that depends on each individual woman. It's not something automatic. It's not something women can look forward to and take for granted. It's not a mantle of status that will be wrapped around them just because they are grandmothers. We have no "grandmotherhood" ceremony to mark the occasion and announce it as something to celebrate. In fact, in our youth-obsessed society the whole question of what a grandmother is and does has become so problematic that many women, hearing that they're about to become one, don't know whether to rejoice or run for cover!

I think they should rejoice; no question about it. This book is intended to clarify the grandmother muddle a bit, and to champion three basic propositions:

First, that grandmothers in the United States and other modern, "nontraditional" cultures should be looked upon as "people of immense importance and authority."

Second, that becoming a grandmother is an occasion for celebration.

And Third, that being a grandmother, though it bringsresponsibilities and the occasional rough patch, though it's a role that has to be learned and takes some getting used to, can and should be a delight.

Credit for this book does not belong to me alone; I had a lot of help. Special thanks go to my agent, Jeff McCartney, and to my editor, Jackie Decter, for all their patience and guidance as the book was being written. Thanks are due to my husband, my children, and my grandchildren (all ten of them), who provided me with the experience I needed to write this book and were helpful and supportive while I got it done.

Above all, I owe a debt of gratitude to my own grandmother Bertha Letha Motley Lewis, who started me down this road with a sure hand, a magnificent example, and an unconditional love.

Suzette Haden Elgin

P.O. Box 1137

Huntsville, Arkansas 72740-1137


Why We Need This Book

The Grandmothering Problem

When I was a little girl (I was born in 1936), everybody knew exactly how to spot a grandmother. Grandmothers were Old Ladies, period. They had gray or white hair, they had wrinkles, and they wore dresses, usually dresses that buttoned down the front. My own grandmother got up every day at 4:30 a.m. and put on a dress and hose and high heels. Even when she was working in the garden; even when she went fishing at the river. Rich or poor, fat or slender, grandmothers in those days were Old Ladies, and they dressed and behaved accordingly.

Grandmothers in the 1930s and 1940s either knew how to do everything or were very good at pretending that they did. Their families doted on them or were terrified of them, often both. We expected grandmothers to be neat and clean and sweet smelling at all times. We expected them to be experts in all the homemaking arts and crafts and sciences, and the idea that they might get into any kind of trouble never crossed our minds. After all, they were elderly; they were long past the trouble stage.

This goes a long way toward explaining why a woman's first thought today when she learns that she's going to be a grandmother is often "But I'm not that old! " Gail Sheehy, in an article called "Congratulations, You're a Grandmother!" says it's the shock of being "pushed to the front of the generational train." She's quite right; for many women, it does feel like being pushed. One minute they're young or middle-aged, and the next—all of a sudden, without any preparation or transition—here comes a label that they've always associated only with old age.

Thanks to television and movies, that prototype grandmother concept is still with us, after a vague fashion. I look quite a bit like the grandmothers of my childhood. Not long ago, as I was leaving a Wal-Mart store, I said a polite hello to a group of teenage boys on their way in. And as the door closed behind me I heard one of them say to the others, "Now that is what a grandmother is supposed to look like!" It warmed my heart to hear it, but he wasn't quite right; close, but not quite. Because, despite my white hair and my wrinkles, I was wearing slacks. The grandmothers of my childhood would have cut their throats before going out in public in slacks; most lived their entire lives without ever putting on a single pair.

Grandmothers today are often a different matter entirely. Today, when mothers may be no more than sixteen or seventeen years old, we see many grandmothers who are still in their thirties or forties. Not only do we see grandmothers in pants, we see them in shorts, and in bikinis. White hair and wrinkles are far in their future. They look more like somebody's sister than somebody's grandparent. It's not as easy for them to inspire awe as it was for the classic grandmothers of the past.

And no longer does a typical household have at least one very old lady in residence or living close by, finishing out her life and serving as an information resource and role model for the younger women coming along after her. Today's very old ladies tend to be of two kinds: those who are in nursing homes and retirement centers and "snowbird" parks (often halfway across the continent from their families), and those who are seizing the opportunity to do all the things they always longed to do—like climbing mountains and trekking through rain forests-and are even less conveniently located. Even when elderly ladies stay put themselves, families today move so often that they're not likely to be right at hand. It's no longer easy for women to learn how to act like grandmothers.

The competent grandmother shortage is even worse for the multitude of single mothers. Whatever their reasons for parenting without a father on deck, they have only half as many chances to be blessed with access to a grandmother as mothers with partners do. Suppose you happen to be one of these junior grandmothers, without a wrinkle to your name. What are you to do? How are you to proceed? Suppose (whatever your actual age) you are a woman whose mothering came for the most part from a television set. Many women meet that description today, through no fault of their own, because their mothers were always desperately busy and often worked outside the home as well as within it. Suppose you are someone who was forced to leave the care of your own child to a relative or sitter while you worked long hours, perhaps at more than one job; suppose that as a result most of your practice in mothering skills was pretty much restricted to putting teeny-tiny lingerie and evening gowns on your Barbie dolls. How do you manage? Where do you go to get grandmother lessons?

There was a day when a woman without an experienced older lady to turn to for help could buy or borrow fat books that would serve pretty well as stand-ins for a live grandmother, at least well enough to get her started. Today those "housekeeping compendiums," even when they can be found, have ceased to be a very useful resource. Most of us no longer need to know how to churn butter or get milk stains out of linen-and-lace baby dresses. The books and magazines I see that claim to be for today's grandmothers often miss the mark. They tell you how to choose a theme park to take the grandkids to during your annual two-week visit. They tell you how how to pick a suitable stock to start your grandchild's investment portfolio. They tell you how to handle the resentment your grandchild's mother feels because she isn't as beautiful as you are and her figure isn't nearly as good as yours and she can't afford to dress as well as you do. These are useful skills, and they may represent tasks you'll be taking on one of these days. But they're not the basics. They're the frills, way out on the edge of grandmother wit and wisdom and how-to.

Basic grandmother skills are rapidly disappearing, that's the problem, and we can't do without them. If we don't take action to save them now, we're going to be in serious trouble down the road. Since we can't wave a magic wand and produce competent grandmothers-in-residence on demand, we have to turn to other sources of information. What we need fast is a modern (and shorter, and less grim) version of those old-fashioned compendiums, based on a set of guidelines that can be applied to every aspect of grandmothering and written for today's woman. What we need is this book.

Why I'm Qualified to Write This Book

You don't know me; I've never had the pleasure of meeting you and spending time with you. Let me introduce myself.

My Grandmother Merit Badges

I have ten grandchildren of my own. Four of them are less than an hour away from my home in Arkansas, so that I can be regularly involved in their raising and I am on standby at all times for grandmother duty. Four are in California, and two are in New Zealand, providing me with experience in the skills of long-distance grandmothering that are so crucial for our far-flung modern families.

My California grandchildren lost their father very suddenly and had to learn the lessons of bitter grief and agonizing loss at far too early an age. Until recently they lived only a hundred yards away from me; I was with their mother when the third one was born, and I preschooled the first three. Seeing them move away (for excellent reasons) wasn't easy, but I learned from it. Four of my grandchildren, whose father is Laotian and Buddhist, live in a multicultural and multilingual household. The other two-the New Zealand ones-live the perfect and uncomplicated life of the Dick and Jane books. I have average grandchildren and gifted ones, tall ones and short ones, talented ones and ones whose talents have yet to appear. I have grandchildren living in upper-middle-class comfort and grandchildren who know what it is to have scrambled eggs for dinner four nights in a row. Some of my grandchildren have been home-schooled (as were some of my children); some are happy in traditional school settings. Most, to my great joy, are healthy in every way, but I have one grandchild who struggles with a chronic illness. I have a more than ample assortment, you see.

And I have had plenty of experience with the problems modern parents face. I raised two sons, two daughters, and at times a stepson through every variety of situations and circumstances, most of them diffcult and some almost unbelievable. Any problem I haven't yet seen among my grandchildren is sure to be one I have already had to deal with as I was bringing up their parents.

My Writer Merit Badges

You can trust me to get you safely to the end of this book. I have written and published more than two dozen books-novels, nonfiction books, and textbooks-and I do know how it's done. I took up book writing as a way of getting myself through college while I still had four—sometimes five—youngsters at home to look after. I won't lecture you, and I won't preach at you. I won't ask you to settle for platitudes and vapors. I won't pretend that grandmothering is never anything but moonlight and roses. I will give you real information in abundance, solid and practical and useful, as clearly as I know how. And because I know how busy you are, I'll do it as briefly as possible.

My Own Two Grandmothers

As you know by now, I had one classic grandmother. My maternal grandmother, Bertha Letha Motey Lewis, would have won a Grandmothering Olympics hands-down. I spent the first five years of my life in her constant company and a lot of time with her thereafter, and I remember every single thing she taught me. When she made turkey stuffing (which she called "turkey dressing"), she began by making buttermilk biscuits from scratch, to be crumbled for the stuffing. That meant starting at three-thirty Thanksgiving morning, and she did. For Christmas she made box after box after box of fudge and caramels and stuffed dates, carefully layered between sheets of waxed paper-from scratch. Her church counted on her for Easter lilies, and she provided them. The day she found a rattlesnake by her woodshed, she put her high-heeled shoe on its neck, chopped it in half with her hoe, pitched the corpse in the garbage can, and went on to tend her rosebushes. Neither I nor anyone else, so far as I know, would ever have thought of disobeying her. She was that sort of grandmother, and I adored her.

I also had a grandmother of the other sort. I know from photographs that my Grandmother Diana had the specified white hair and wrinkles, but that's about all I know. She and my grandfather were separated, though never divorced; I lived in Missouri and she lived in California. She was a total stranger to me. She never wrote, she never called, she never sent a Christmas card, she never came to visit. If she invited us to visit, no one ever told me. The only gift I ever received from her was a rhinestone necklace that she sent me when I graduated from high school and that I have still. She died without my ever having met her. She either didn't know how to do long-distance grandmothering or didn't choose to. I will never know which, and that's a shame. But she did an excellent job of showing me how not to grandmother, and that has turned out to be useful for this book.

There: that's who I am and how I came to know about grandmothering. We can now move on to consider . . .

The Four Basic Grandmothers

Grandmothers follow four basic patterns, whether they live next door or a thousand miles away. Let's take a brief look at all four, so that you can choose the one that you think would fit you best. You'll want to tailor it to your own needs, of course, but the broad outlines below will get you started.

The Traditional Grandmother

Traditional Grandmothers today don't necessarily look old in the way the grandmothers of my childhood did. But they don't dye their hair to hide the gray, they don't worry about wrinkles, and they don't dress like their daughters dress. They are glad to baby-sit their grandchildren—within reason. They always send gifts and/or cards on holidays and birthdays. When someone writes to these women, they answer the letter; when someone leaves a message on the answering machine, they return the call. When asked for advice, they give it gladly; when they feel that advice is needed and nobody does ask, they go ahead and offer it anyway—gently. Going out with a Traditional Grandmother is a pleasure, because she will always be courteous and pleasant, and it will always be possible to be proud of her.

The Ultramodern Grandmother

Ultramodern Grandmothers may be any age from thirty to ninety, but they don't look like stereotypical elderly ladies. When they have white hair, it will be dramatically and fashionably styled. They either have no wrinkles at all (by the luck of the draw or by facelift) or glory in their wrinkles on the grounds that wrinkles show character. They dress in the Very Latest Thing. They do not hesitate to tell their offspring that they prefer not to be called Grandmother, if that's how they feel about it, and to specify what they do wish to be called. They will baby-sit if it suits them, but only if there are no restrictions—that is, if they are absolutely in charge while they do it. They rarely write postal letters, although they may send e-mail; they telephone often and will usually send holiday cards. They offer advice without hesitation, whether asked for it or not; they are quite ready to talk about sex and drugs and religion and sports and what's cool. Going out with an Ultramodern Grandmother is an adventure for the grandchildren, because she may take them places their parents would never let them go; they'd be wise not to expect that she'll be "nice" at all times, however.

The Eccentric Grandmother

All bets are off with this kind of grandmother. She may wear her hair flowing down her back all the way to her waist, she may wear it in braids, she may shave her head. She may dress in anything whatsoever; she may wear cowboy boots. What she does in the way of writing and calling and remembering gift occasions can be anything from punctilious dotting of every I and crossing of every T to inventing occasions of her own and honoring only those or ignoring the entire apparatus of such practices. Sometimes she'll baby-sit, sometimes she won't, according to rules of her own devising. Going out with an Eccentric Grandmother can be wildly exciting or terrifying or both at once, and it can make everyone present want to pretend they're not with her. She may or may not supply advice; when she does, it's a good idea to think carefully before taking it. She may very well get in trouble, sometimes in ways that no one in the family could have imagined.

The Overburdened Grandmother

This fourth grandmother variety is a woman who never gets around to choosing one of the other three grandmothering styles. She could of course work out some new grandmother flavor of her own instead, but she doesn't do that either. Sometimes the explanation is that she's so young she really needs to be grandmothered herself instead of taking on the role. Sometimes it's because she is just frail; not everyone comes into this world strong and vigorous and filled with energy and joy and gumption, and not all who do arrive that way reach grandmotherhood unscathed. And sometimes it's because she is so busy, or so totally disorganized, that she can scarcely find time to breathe. However she looks and whatever she does, she always seems fretful and worried and rushed and absent-minded; often she seems very tired as well. She may send cards and letters and gifts, and she may call-but she will do it at the last possible minute, and whoever is on the receiving end will feel guilty. Going places with an Overburdened Grandmother or having her baby-sit won't ordinarily be much fun, because everyone involved will feel bad about the trouble they're putting her through and the distress they're causing her.

This can be a good cover for a woman who truly wants nothing to do with grandmothering, since it guarantees that nobody will rely on her to chop wood and haul water on any regular basis. It can also be the unfortunate and genuine situation of a woman who doesn't quite know how to proceed and who really is overburdened. If you tend toward this type, and it's genuine rather than a put-on, stay with me; I'll show you how to fix that. By the time you get to the end of this book you'll see clearly that you have other, better choices. If you are trying to avoid the whole grandmother role, please stay with me anyway; I'd like a chance to persuade you to change your mind.

Why Grandmothering Is a Good Investment

Let's suppose for a minute that you're strongly considering settling for being an Overburdened Grandmother, in the hope that your family will then give up and leave you alone. Or you're considering going away, perhaps to Australia or the outermost reaches of Maine, and leaving them alone. Let's suppose that you're thinking, Why in the world should I bother with the grandmother role?

Feeling that way doesn't mean that you're a selfish person, in spite of what you may read and what well-meaning friends who love grandmothering (or who do it, grimly, because they consider it their duty) may tell you. It's a sensible and legitimate question. After all, the reason you are a grandmother now is probably that you've already devoted a sizable portion of your life to looking after the concerns and needs of other people, not all of whom were fascinating company, and not all of whom appreciated your efforts. You may very well feel that you've had it up to here with all that and that it's now time for you to do your thing.

I can understand that perfectly; there are days when I feel exactly the same way. Every sane grandmother does. However, it's possible to be an active, competent grandmother and do your own thing too. Most of the time that "Let me out of here!" feeling comes from the very problem that this book is designed to remedy: the lack of adequate information about grandmothering. I can demonstrate to you that the joys of being a grandmother far outweigh the burdens-if you know what you're doing. I'm here to show you that successful grandmothering does not have to be hard, so that you can more calmly consider the benefits of grandmothering.

The Benefits for Your Children (the Chadults)

Your grandkids' parents-your own children, whether seventeen or forty, and their partners—face many problems that you have already faced. It may be that everything you did when those problems were yours was wrong. That's fine! You now know what not to do. If you're not around, your chadults will have to reinvent the wheel every time. With your help, they can avoid unnecessary mistakes with that batch of problems, leaving them far more resources for tackling diffculties that are new to you as well as to them. In addition, there are uniquely grandmotherly services that only you can provide, services that will give them courage and confidence and joy they can't get any other way.

I can hear you thinking, "Oh, they'll never listen to me! " and "Oh, they'll do exactly the opposite of what I tell them!" Don't be too quick to leap to that conclusion. Those are two of the common annoyances that can be fixed by skillful grandmothering. There are ways of giving grown children—chadults—advice that will make that advice welcome and avoid a great deal of misery all around. I'll tell you about them as we go along.

The Benefits for Your Grandchildren

To grandchildren today, a grandmother is often enormously important because she is the only stable element in a world of wildly shifting sands. This is just as true for families with plenty of money as it is for those who live from paycheck to paycheck or have no paycheck at all: There are plenty of kinds of misery in today's world that aren't linked to money. Every time we turn on the news we learn of another troubled person who's done some terrible thing-and who turns out to have had a hellish childhood. But when you look at a hundred people whose younger years were miserable, you'll find that among them there are survivors, people who were able to come through childhoods of torment and become fine adults. This isn't a matter of luck. From much careful scientific research, we've learned that what these survivors usually have in common is that as children they had at least one grown-up they could count on. Grandmothers have never been more desperately needed to fill that slot than they are now!

The Benefits for Your Descendants

Today's families are forever on the move. They move from town to town, job to job, neighborhood to neighborhood, drastic change to drastic change. They need a history that will knit them together and prove to them that however incomprehensible life may be on any given day, they do belong to something. Grandmothers are uniquely equipped to make certain that what they belong to is a family. You don't want any of your descendants to have to fall back on belonging to a gang, for lack of any other resource.

The Benefits for You

Arthur Kornhaber, the "Dr. Spock of grandparenting," answers the question of what grandparents get from their role this way: "It gives meaning to their lives in a society that currently has no meaning for old age." That's true; and it is more true for grandmothers. Aging women are far less likely than their male counterparts to be viewed as "distinguished" or to be sought out and surrounded by admiring colleagues and proteges and potential romantic interests. And—because their lifespans are longer—they're much more likely to find themselves lonely or alone.

It's hard, at age forty or younger, to imagine finding yourself all alone. It may even sound like a delightful condition. When I (not very often) traveled on business as a young woman, my idea of a really splendid evening wasn't a whirl through the clubs and theaters and restaurants. It was room service-food fixed by somebody else and brought to me, and the resulting dirty dishes and leftovers taken away by somebody else—followed by an evening of blissful solitude during which I could do whatever I darn pleased. When your life is frantic and you live it in a crowd, as is true for so many busy mothers, that's how things look. But the time will come when the relatives and the friends and the colleagues that crowded your earlier life are gone. People move away; people go into nursing homes; people die. And there you are! That part of your life can be a dreary wasteland you drag yourself through or it can be full of love and joy—it's really up to you. Being a grandmother is one of the most reliable ways to guarantee the love and joy alternative.

Besides, you don't want some grandchild of your own remembering you in the future the way I remember my Grandmother Diana, do you?

The Benefits for Humankind

It's not an exaggeration to say that grandmothers might very well save this world from disaster. We keep hearing that everything's going to the dogs, that humanity is headed straight downhill and seems to be wallowing in its worst excesses, that civilization is falling apart all around us. Maybe this is nothing more than the usual fretting of older generations about things "not being like they used to be"; that's possible. On the other hand, there's a lot of evidence to indicate that the negative judgments are valid. And the people making them now include as many children and teenagers and young people as elderly adults.

Suppose it's true. Suppose we really are in serious trouble as a people and a planet. If all the grandmothers help, there may still be time to fix it. You never know. You might grandmother an Abraham Lincoln, an Eleanor Roosevelt, a Sojourner Truth. It's worth thinking about.

And What about the Grandfathers?

There's a book called The Raging Granny Songbook, in which a seven-year-old girl tells us that "a grandfather is a man grandmother." She has a point. Grandfathers are just as important as grandmothers. But books about grandfathering should be written by grandfathers, who are the experts on that subject.

I am confident that the grandfathers who read this book will have the wisdom to recognize all that is true in it for them, too, and will put it to good use.

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