Grannies and menopause: Is this why women live longer?

Ask most working parents and they’ll tell you life simply wouldn’t function without the help of grandparents.
Ask most working parents and they’ll tell you life simply wouldn’t function without the help of grandparents. Photo: Shutterstock

My kid has disturbingly large feet. Having burned through seven shoe sizes in the past 12 months, he’s been forced to graduate from Velcro to laces. At three years old but with flippers more suited to a Year 2 student, he now has to learn to tie them.

His parents battled valiantly for a few days. I tried the double-loop-bunny-ears method, while my husband favoured the traditional snake-through-the-hole approach. We trimmed the laces short to make them more manageable for small fingers. I even consulted the Raising Kids Network, as well as some more questionable YouTube tutorials.

Progress remained… limited.

Jamila Rizvi's son has close relationships with all four of his grandparents.
Jamila Rizvi's son has close relationships with all four of his grandparents. Photo: Jamila Rizvi

Then work and life got in the way. We fell into the easy pattern of tying them for him.

“Don’t worry,” I said with total confidence, seeking to reassure myself more than anyone else. “Mum is visiting in a few weeks. She’ll sort it out.”

Ask most working parents and they’ll tell you life simply wouldn’t function without the help of their own mums or dads. The remainder will respond wistfully, fantasising about how much more manageable their days would be if day-to-day grandparent support were an option.

As it turns out, the benefits are even greater than we might realise.

Two new studies lend weight to the so-called "Grandmother Hypothesis", a theory that grandmothering has a positive impact on both human health and longevity.

Early evidence for the theory was gathered by University of Utah anthropologist Kristen Hawkes. While studying the Hadza people of northern Tanzania, she observed that grandmothers in the hunter-gatherer societies were highly productive and this help allowed their daughters to have more children.

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Research published in February mined data from impeccably detailed birth, death and marriage records dating back to pre-industrial Finland and 17th century France (now Canada). Anthropologists were able to quantify both a reproductive boost and a decrease in childhood mortality that were linked with the proximity of granny. They also found having a nana aged between 50 and 75 boosted a toddler’s chance of survival from five to 30 per cent.

While the "Grandmother Hypothesis" remains contentious, it is probably the best explanation scientists currently have for why female humans have evolved to live well beyond their reproductive prime.

Menopause is a phenomenon that’s only been observed in two other species; the vast majority of animals die once they’re no longer able to reproduce.

Fast-forward several hundreds of years through human evolution and grandparents are definitely proving life-saving – as well as life-lengthening – for today’s young parents.

Both parents work in two thirds of Australian families with children aged under 15. Child care is hugely expensive, even after government subsidies, with 40 per cent of families spending more on child care than the weekly grocery shop.

Reliance on grandparent support is greater than ever before. The economic impact is significant, with grandparents contributing the equivalent of almost $4 billion in unpaid child care annually. There are growing concerns the burden on some grandparents has become too much, as young parents – faced with rising costs of living and high housing prices – grasp at the help they can.

Australians should, of course, be mindful that the responsibility of looking after grandchildren doesn’t exceed people’s capacity or willingness as they age. But we know that, for most grandparents, there is deep joy and fulfilment that comes from spending time with their grandchildren. That delight is returned from little people as well.

The fervour with which my son runs to the door when his grandparents arrive for a visit, is otherwise reserved only for the sound of a Mr Whippy van. He adores the hours spent in their company and is fortunate in having four doting grandparents who devote their time to him.

My son’s relationship with his grandfathers is markedly different from the relationship they once had with their grandfathers. As millennial dads become more equal caregivers in their children’s lives, the impact and influence of men in grandparenting also grows. My kid anticipates time spent with his both his grandfathers. Dragging either his guitar or cricket bat upstairs to show off, depending on which one happens to be visiting.

Perhaps the next thousand years will see evolution intervene once more, transforming the "Grandmother Hypothesis" into a "Grandparent Effect"? It might be men whose life expectancy is lengthened next, as their involvement in caring for grandchildren becomes increasingly necessary.

Until then, more grandfathers get to enjoy meaningful time with children they love, in a way that gender expectations may prevented them from doing with their own kids.

With four grandparent relationships, my monstrous-footed great, great, great grandchildren will have even more lace-tying teachers around them. I’ll be lobbying the shoe stores to extend the life of Velcro to larger sizes in the meantime. Wish me luck.

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