Hope Edelman, author of Mother of My Mother (Random House 1999), explains that, "Dependable, predictable adults are the foundation of a child's world. In the child's mind, grandparents serve as backup parents, the nest that will break the family's fall."
According to figures reported by Generations United, a national coalition organization, in 2000 nearly 2.5 million grandparents have become backup parents, raising 3.9 million of the children not living with parents. The primary causes they cite for the broken nest and subsequent grandparent role are: divorce, substance abuse, parental death, abuse, neglect, poverty, family violence, unemployment, incarceration, abandonment, mental health problems, AIDS, and teenage pregnancy.
A grandmother must, nonetheless, protect herself when she is called upon too often, said Mamie McCamey. Her daughter came to live with her when she was pregnant and about due to deliver a girl. These three generations of women lived together until Mamie's granddaughter was grown.
Ensuring Emotional Closeness
Determining whether or not a grandmother or granddaughter will be close depends on several factors, Edelman says. She found in her study that in cases where the mother and younger daughter are close, then the grandmother takes on a more supplemental role. Secondly, Edelman factors in the proximity of the grandmother and says that it is easier to develop an emotionally close relationship with a grandmother who is not separated by distance. Third, she points to how compatible grandmother and granddaughter are.
However, this doesn't tell the entire story. Sixty million grandparents in the United States live in a separate city from at least one grandchild. These grandmothers are working hard to create an emotional closeness with grandchildren. In order to accomplish this, they visit or call often, write letters, and include self-addressed envelopes, send pictures, tape message, communicate via e-mail, and show as much concern, interest, and love as possible.
Maternal grandmothers may have an edge on long-distance grandparenting. A mother is the parent who most often gives or denies access to her children. Therefore, sociologists Andrew J. Cherlin and Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., co-authors of The New American Grandparent (Harvard University Press, 1992), advise grandparents to be careful to develop and maintain a good relationship with their grandchildren's mom.