Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Work and Family

Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Work and Family

Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Work and Family

Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Work and Family


Winner of the 2014 Richard Kalish Innovative Publication Award presented by the Gerontological Society of America

Young working mothers are not the only ones who are struggling to balance family life and careers. Many middle-aged American women face this dilemma as they provide routine childcare for their grandchildren while pursuing careers and trying to make ends meet. Employment among middle-aged women is at an all-time high. In the same way that women who reduce employment hours when raising their young children experience reductions in salary, savings, and public and private pensions, the mothers of those same women, as grandmothers, are rearranging hours to take care of their grandchildren, experiencing additional loss of salary and reduced old age pension accumulation. Madonna Harrington Meyer's Grandmothers at Work, based primarily on 48 in-depth interviews conducted in 2009-2012 with grandmothers who juggle working and minding their grandchildren, explores the strategies of, and impacts on, working grandmothers.

While all of the grandmothers in Harrington Meyer's book are pleased to spend time with their grandchildren, many are readjusting work schedules, using vacation and sick leave time, gutting retirement accounts, and postponing retirement to care for grandchildren. Some simply want to do this; others do it in part because they have more security and flexibility on the job than their daughters do at their relatively new jobs. Many are sequential grandmothers, caring for one grandchild after the other as they are born, in very intensive forms of grandmothering. Some also report that they are putting off retirement out of economic necessity, in part due to the amount of financial help they are providing their grandchildren. Finally, some are also caring for their frail older parents or ailing spouses just as intensively. Most expect to continue feeling the pinch of paid and unpaid work for many years before their retirement. Grandmothers at Work provides a unique perspective on a phenomenon faced by millions of women in America today.


I never really had a grandmother growing up. My mother’s mom, Kathryn, died decades before I was born. My mom was just 18. My father’s mom, Anna, died when I was very young. I have only two memories of Anna. In one, she was at our home for a holiday. The house was filled with family and I had asked Grandma, whose hair was always in a tight white bun, if I could brush her hair. She allowed me to do so and while I was probably nowhere near gentle enough, I was enthralled by her long and silky fine hair. In the other memory, we were visiting her at the nursing home. My dad, mom, and several of my siblings were all there chatting with her and she had little idea who we were. At one point she encouraged my mother to marry her son, something she had already done decades earlier, sending the kids, but not our parents, into peals of laughter. I would have liked to have a grandma around much more than I did. My mom would have, too. She would have liked to have some grandmotherly help given that she bore seven children within a fastpaced 10 years. Though she raised us without a helpful grandmother, she became an incredibly helpful and loving grandmother as we had our own children. My siblings and I have been enormously grateful as we watched the joy between our mom and our children deepen each year. We see just how much we missed as we were growing up.

A longing for a grandmother had little to do with why I started this project, however. I began thinking about this project when I was going up for full professorship and my three children were in middle school and high school. I have often described parenting while working fulltime as living life within a tightly secured bungee cord. Every minute of every day is accounted for as my husband, Jeff, and I trade off who will teach, write, shuttle kids, help with homework, start the laundry, prepare dinner, walk the dog, and every other thing imaginable. In my . . .

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