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Grand-parenting as the reconciliation of kinship — by Daniel Miller

By Xinyuan Wang, on 10 April 2019

Kinship studies have been the bedrock of social anthropology for more than a century. But the main emphasis has been on issues of classification, the structuring of society, and the norms of relationships. Kinship will play a major role in our publications, but my hope is that the emphasis will be more on the experience of kinship. Grandparenting is a good example of this. Precisely because it comes late in life, grandparenting is so much more than simply the relationship to the grandchild. It is often a coming to terms with and sometimes a resolution of the entire experience of kinship up to that time. To understand why the people I study take a particular attitude or degree of involvement with grandparenting usually means understanding their past relationship to their own parents and to their children.

(Photo by Stacie Andrea)

For example, a man who feels he was neglected as part of a very large traditional family, and then in turn neglected the parenting of his own children, because he was in full time work, may see being a grandfather as his first opportunity to explore kinship as inter-generational love and care in depth. While a woman who had most of the burden of parenting and feels she discharged her responsibilities and has experienced that intensity of love and care, may be quite happy to keep her role as grandmother to a minimum, using this period to find the balance between personal autonomy and kinship obligations that has eluded her through a lifespan that up to now has fluctuated between too much kinship and too little kinship (such as the period of the empty nest).

When this works well grandparenting is both joyful and profound because it is experienced as the final reconciliation of so many tensions within past kinship, now at last reaching a balance in which kinship becomes pure enjoyment. But the key to this is not so much the relationship one chooses to have with one’s grandchildren but the transformation this brings about in the relationship to one’s own children. Because as a result of grandparenting, people often find that their own children, who for the period when they were teenagers or in their twenties, may have been barely in touch, are now, to at least a small degree, dependent again upon their parents. But often unlike the period when they were young, and most unlikely at the time they were teenagers, they may both acknowledge and appreciate that dependence and what their parents did for them. Welcoming their parents as the grandparents of their children demonstrates that they finally trust and respect the parenting that they themselves received. I have also been struck by how grandparents contrast this situation with the trauma and neglect they felt at being raised in traditional large families which seem to have resulted in many tensions with siblings and their own parents, and which now they are coming to terms with.

Often things do not work out quite so smoothly, a daughter wants her mother to mind both her grandchildren so she can go back to work. But the grandmother refuses because she wants to remain their grandmother not an ersatz mother. A child with very bad memories of being parented may want to keep the grandparent away from their own children. Grandparents feel they have been replaced by smartphone screens as their grandchildren are present in their carem but not interested in the stories and toys that the grandparents have been aching to share one more time. On balance though, at least for the people in Cuan I have been studying, grandparenting often appears to be this profound coming to terms with the entire history of kinship experienced up to that time.

My point is that studying grandparenting in depth has helped me towards an alternative anthropology of kinship itself, one that is perhaps more holistic and based on kinship as cumulative experience, a rather different perspective to the traditions of kinship studies I was taught as a student.

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