Liberating Our Nation’s Grandmas

Women are slowly getting the freedom of choice but have we really stopped to think if it is at anyone’s expense? Are we really solving the problem of female inequality and exploitation or are we simply passing it on to our mothers?

In almost every civilisation economies have thrived off and been supported by women’s free labour. Child care, domestic chores, caring for the elderly and the sick, teaching and cooking are all necessary for a society to function. Today middle class women pass them on to underpaid workers. Now women’s labour finally has a monetary value placed on it we can see how undervalued it is. We export the exploitation to those willing to do it for a minimum wage. Many academics have critiqued the international element of inequality within the women’s movement. As western women become “liberated” their legacy is the exploitation of immigrants who take on their old roles.

Yet are we missing another effect much closer to home? For millions of young mothers their own mother is the first person they will call on for help. Research shows that grandparents are the preferred option for childcare. Not really surprising as they are both free and reliable. The women’s movement has not solved the problem of who takes the place of the woman in the household. Women have to juggle childcare, work and domestic labour or pass the responsibility to their parents if they are not willing to pay someone else to do it. So whilst Grandma may have fought for women’s rights in the 70’s her reward was having to become a housewife again in her old age to “liberate” today’s women. Whilst they are off working granny’s back at home wondering how her retirement turned into a second parenthood.

We all know about the multitasking single mother of three who works, cooks, cleans, pays the bills, looks after the children whilst simultaneously dealing with her own personal problems but who do you think is supports her? This is where the unsung heroine comes to the rescue. So perhaps the question is not how do the nation’s working single mothers cope? The real question is how do the nation’s grandmothers cope? These grandmothers are already dealing with the multiple disadvantages that come with age. They also have to cope with the cumulative disadvantage of gender over the life course through lower life earnings, lower pensions, higher morbidity and usually greater caring responsibilities for older family members, siblings or partners. Now due to the velocity of women entering the workplace and the expense of childcare the grandmother is now the new housewife to top it all off. She doesn’t get paid, she doesn’t get help, she can’t work and she can’t claim benefits. Does this sound at all familiar to those of you who lived through the 70’s?

There is a commonly held view that the traditional nuclear family is breaking down. The happy family of mum, dad, brother and sister no longer fits the reality of the typical British family. Yet another change in family demographics is being overlooked – the multi generational family. Whilst mum and dad are arguing they are leaning ever more on their own parents for support. Research shows that not only are extended families increasing but they are becoming more and more involved in family life. This isn’t only in terms of helping with childcare but equally helping with financial hardship.

The apocalyptic image of our ageing population is a popular one. The view of older people as a burden will be a difficult one to change, yet in reality parents will provide more support to their children at all stages in their life than children will ever pay back to their parents. Even in retirement monetary transfers tend to travel down the family despite the popular image of granny shacked up in a residential home draining the family of funds.

It’s time to liberate the granny!

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