Examining the role of grandmothers in society
Dr. Liliana Alessandri with one of her grandchildren. Courtesy photo

“A grandmother is a little bit parent, a little bit teacher, and a little bit best friend.” The saying’s source is unknown, but the sentiment it expresses is pretty nearly universal. 

But although that’s always been so, grandmothering today may be more important than ever. Since 1978, grandparents have even had their own official “day,” observed annually on the first Sunday after Labor Day. And lately a rash of new publications, websites and groups has sprung up with the aim of celebrating and assisting grandparents.

Stepping up care

In this atmosphere of heightened interest and appreciation for grandmothering, a program called Grandmothers Exchange is seeking its place in the sun. It’s the brainchild of Dr. Liliana T. Alessandri, Catholic, physician, mother of nine and grandmother of 13, with grandchild No. 14 due in July. 

“Your children and your grandchildren need you,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. Rejecting the model of a social club for “grannies,” she describes the Exchange as a serious program for ongoing study and discussion of the trade by the people who know it best. 

Grandmothers Exchange has emerged amid a near-explosive expansion of the grandparenting role in the United States. One child in 10 in the United States now lives with a grandparent or grandparents, with close to 3 million being raised mainly by them — largely by their grandmothers. 

To some extent, what’s happening reflects the upbeat fact that older people live longer and stay healthy longer than they used to. But it’s also linked to troubling trends such as marital breakdown, single parenting, family pressures arising when both parents work outside the home, and the impact of a serious recession. Grandparents time and again have stepped up to relieve stressed-out parents and fill the childcare gap. 

Passing on faith

While Dr. Alessandri didn’t invent the Grandmothers Exchange as a specific response to the problems, her program inevitably takes them into account as part of the situations many grandmothers face. 

The idea came to her well over a decade ago when she and her husband lived in New York. One day she heard the popular writer and preacher Father Benedict Groeschel say the grandmothers of Russia deserved credit for saving Christianity in that country by passing on faith to their grandchildren despite the communist regime’s hostility to religion. 

“That’s what I want to do,” she thought. The Grandmothers Exchange had been born. 

The first group was launched shortly before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The resulting death and destruction suggested an obvious topic for discussion: How do you explain evil and suffering to children? 

Other topics have multiplied since then. Among the other themes contained in a Grandmothers Exchange guide are obedience, responsibility, kindness, modesty, sex, substance abuse, communication, peer pressure, friendship, long distance grandparenting, money management and divorce. 

Another matter of continuing concern, she says, is “care of the husband” — the point being that grandmothers need to clear their plans with their husbands before making large commitments to children and grandchildren. 

Overall, the program is aimed at three areas of need: 1) relationship issues, particularly how grandmothers can help parents without taking over (“drawing the line between support and meddling”); 2) self-care — protecting themselves against the demands of children who imagine their mothers have nothing else to do except look after their kids (“we need to have a life — friends, work, travel of our own”); 3) teaching grandchildren virtues (“again, without interfering”). 

“The enthusiasm is remarkable,” she said. 

Centered on values

The group — usually a dozen or so women—reads assigned material in advance, then assembles once a month for discussion. Bringing grandkids isn’t allowed. “Everybody has to talk,” and disagreements aren’t uncommon. The conversation lasts 45 minutes, followed by coffee, tea, and time to chat. Yearly there’s a luncheon. 

Participants’ ages range from 50 or less to well into the 80s. An older woman without grandkids would qualify if she expected to have them or was already a caregiver. Currently Dr. Alessandri coordinates two groups — one in her home in Davidsonville, Md., near Annapolis, the other in a conference center in Columbia, Md. There’s a third group in the New York area. 

The exchange is “not a church thing,” Alessandri insisted, and the discussions are “not religion-centered but value-centered — universal.” The group in her home includes a Muslim woman and an evangelical woman. 

But, she adds, “it’s an apostolate, that’s for sure.” 

Although it’s structured, the program also is simple enough that others can make it work with a little effort.  

For all its intellectual seriousness, the Grandmothers Exchange takes for granted the elemental fact that grandmothers love their grandchildren. Everything follows from that. In the end, comedian Sam Levenson may have put it best: “The simplest toy, one which even the youngest child can operate, is called a grandparent.” 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. For more information, contact Alessandri at lilianatalessandri@gmail.com.