What Good Is Grandma?

Grandparents are busy these days. The number of juveniles in the United States under 18 living in a grandparent’s household rose from 4.6 million in 2005-07 to 5.2 million in 2008-10, probably because of economic stress associated with the Great Recession.1 Thirteen percent of grandparents provide regular care for at least one grandchild, and 62 percent have provided financial support of some kind to their grandchildren within the past five years.2

These circumstances can be stressful for youngsters, their parents, and their grandparents. But there is another way of looking at it: Today’s grandparents are doing exactly what their biology has prepared them for.

FIRST FAMILY : Marian Robinson (center), Michelle Obama’s mother, is a live-in grandmother to Malia (far left) and Sasha (second from left). She lives in a suite on the third floor of the White House, one floor above her family.Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

In pretty much all other species, individuals reproduce until they can’t anymore, and nearly always, this coincides with the end of their lives. Human beings are extraordinary, by contrast, in that long after we’ve stopped reproducing, we just keep on living. In particular, we appear to be the only animals in which half the population loses the ability to reproduce, through menopause, while they still have roughly one-third of their lives ahead of them, much of it quite healthy.

Natural selection rewards reproduction, and the mathematics show that a woman who produces an additional child will be favored over one who stops ovulating. (Reproduction offers the biological equivalent of compound interest; having just one more offspring means the potential of a whole lot of enhanced

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus9 min readSociety
How Women Came to Dominate Neuroendocrinology: A scientific field founded by men is now mostly female.
When Kathleen Morrison stepped onto the stage to present her research on the effects of stress on the brains of mothers and infants, she was nearly seven and a half months pregnant. The convergence was not lost on Morrison, a postdoctoral researcher
Nautilus2 min read
Announcing a Black Hole Essay Competition from Harvard
The Black Hole Initiative (BHI) at Harvard University announces the first-ever Black Hole Essay Competition, inviting submissions that explore novel connections and new perspectives on black hole research. The BHI awards, including a $10,000 First Pr
Nautilus7 min read
7 Awesome Solar System Destinations That Will Kill You
In the why-aren’t-you-watching-this television show The Expanse, humanity has spread out into the solar system. Mars and Earth stand as bitter rivals, with Ceres settlers somewhere in between. A few companies even have settlers in the outer regions o