Grandparents have had a strange time during the pandemic. While some have been separated for long periods from their children and grandchildren because of shutdowns and health concerns, others have become members, or near members, of the households of their children and grandchildren. Growing parental desperation due to a lack of affordable child care, dramatized by the pandemic, has placed new pressures on grandparents to support their children’s families — even sometimes at a distance.
Yet grandparents continue to be overlooked as essential members of our communities. Over the past 50 years, the scope of grandparenting in the United States has grown to include routine child care and day-to-day involvement — even as the perception of grandparenting has remained static.
The pandemic crisis and the burdens of labor confronting families have made reflection on these trends critical to ensuring that grandparents receive adequate social recognition and support.
Until the 19th century, grandparenthood was not the social role we think of now. With shorter life expectancies the norm, parenting and grandparenting tended to happen concurrently in extended families and communities. Most grandparents — approximately 75 percent of Americans 65 and above in 1850 — lived in households with their children and grandchildren. They labored alongside other family members in household economies that often included farm work, small-scale production for market and caring for young children. Extended families living under one roof made good sense at a time when most families were involved in agrarian work.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the normalcy of grandparents living as members of the household unit began to shift. Industrialization and the decline of farm work meant that work opportunities and marriage often took adult children farther away from their parents and made the help of extended family members less of an economic necessity. Grandparents began to live separately from their children’s families — often still within close traveling distance, but in some cases out of range for daily assistance.
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, this shift in living patterns was accompanied by a shift in perceptions: Grandparents became gradually dissociated from the labor of child care. By the 1920s, the growing physical distance between grandparents and their children’s households meant a growing sense of distance between grandparents and everyday family routines.