Nautilus

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

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