This is what a grandmother looks like
It's time to out myself
Clockwise from top left: grandmas Jade Jagger, Lauryn Hill, Ruth Jones, Patti Smith, Bjork, Kym Marsh
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I don’t really have a problem with ageing. Big birthdays can be daunting, sure, as the year that ends with a nine nears its end. But even then, the day after it’s business pretty much as usual. Thirty sounded old when I was a 29-year-old clamouring to be an editor before the big three-oh hit. Forty felt like the beginning of the end until I was forty and a day. Fifty, on the other hand, was a blessed relief after my car crash late 40s. I’ll get back to you about 60. Assuming we’re lucky enough to all still be here.
I was thinking about this after I interviewed Scottish broadcaster Kaye Adams (Loose Women and Strictly) for this week’s episode of the podcast (Opens in a new window). A self-confessed age- and menopause-denier (which TBH is 100% understandable when you work in TV and have watched older women falling like flies above you), but what really struck me was her dread of turning 60 at the end of the year. “I was born in 1962," she told me, "Which is actually a ludicrously difficult thing for me to say. I’m still sort of working on that...For reasons you could probably stick me in therapy for six months flat, I had a problem with my age, still have a problem with my age, but I’ve decided to out myself.”
Whilst I don't have a problem with my age, there is something I have a conflicted relationship with: being a grandmother. There I’ve said it. My name is Sam and I am a gran. (Well, a GrandSam) This is not a recent development. I have been a gran since I was 46 and I have to admit I was FREAKED OUT. Hence the GrandSam. Because once L was old enough, she needed to know what to call me and there was no way in hell I was being granny. Anyway, she already had two and three would have been downright confusing. So GrandSam was her idea. And it stuck.
Much as I couldn't conceive of being perimenopausal in my mid-forties (it has literally just dawned on me that I became a grandmother and peri at roughly the same time. Hmmm... ), I couldn't get my head around having somehow entered this new phase when most of my friends had children who were still toddling.
It’s not that I was too young, although I certainly felt it. And still do, TBH. My own nan was in her early twenties when she had her children, as was my mum, making my nan a gran in her early forties. It’s only in terms of class and generation that’s changed. A friend of mine with a large family in the North of England had her children in her late twenties. She told me her (mainly London) friends couldn’t believe she was doing it so young – “what about your career?!” – while her extended family couldn’t believe she’d left it so late. Also I’m a gran of the step nature, having never had children of my own (it just didn't happen, as regular readers will know). I'm lucky. I have a stepson I adore and whilst I’m biologically old enough to be his mum – I met him when he was six and I was 23, and married his dad three years later – I've always felt more like an aunt or much older friend. Personally I don’t make a distinction between being a gran and being a step-gran, to me it’s all the same thing.
But why so much aggro over such a small word? There are two things going on here, I think.
The first is that for most of my adult life I've been out of synch with my peers. I married in my mid-20s and formally became a stepmum at 26, when all my friends were out all night at raves and holidaying in Ibiza. By the time my friends were getting married and agonising about biological clocks and childcare, we were worrying about exams and tattoos. Now they’re at the exam stage and, well, I’ve been a mother-in-law for the best part of 12 years, a gran for nine.
Being GrandSam when L was much smaller
The second, and more significant, of course, is the way society views grandmothers. (And mother-in-laws and older women in general… I know, here we go again.) Take predictive text, for example. I’m writing this in a coffee shop on my phone. As I do most Wednesdays. And every time I type gran, this emoji pops up 👵🏻. Try it. And then try not to throw something.
Now search Grandmother, Gran, Granny or Nan in Google image search and count the grey demiwaves. In fact don’t, life’s too short. It may be easier to count the images that don't have them. Clue: you won’t need a whole hand.
The reality is that grandmothers haven’t looked the way society thinks we do for decades and we certainly don’t now. When I was researching the book The Shift, I spoke to several women around my age (say, within a ten year radius) who were on the cusp of grandparenthood and every one of them reported a dip in status. One, Lena, who's a couple of years older than me, is just one of many who told me she already felt like she was regarded as a joke, both by peers and younger women, but becoming a grandmother was the icing on the double standards cake. ‘I’m about to be a grandmother and everyone comments on it all the time," she told me. "Not just men. And several people have started calling me ‘‘Granny’’. But few people have laughed at the idea of my husband being granddad. In fact, even though he’s only a year younger than me, nobody ever mentions his age at all."
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With hindsight, that's definitely one of the reasons I've shied away from broadcasting it in the past. Certainly at the time I became GrandSam, I was already feeling vulnerable, sensing irrelevance in the ether, like Kaye and her reluctance to broadcast her age, subliminally I felt it would be another nail in my professional coffin. I shouldn't have cared less what anyone thought, of course, but it's easy to say that from the other side of what, at the time, felt like a ravine.
Although, even now, I'm one of only a couple of grandmothers amongst my immediate friends, looking further afield I can see there are plenty of us and we come in as many different shapes and sizes as there are women.
Bjork, now 57, became a grandma at 54.
Off the top of my head, Bjork, possibly the least grandma-like of anyone I can think of, became a gran at 54 when her son Sindri (who she had at 20) became a parent. Bjork, being Bjork, is fully here for it. “The biggest surprise for me was how magnificent it is," she told The Times. "A bonus feature in life that they don’t really talk a lot about. It’s just as amazing as getting your own kids.”
Kym Marsh who was evicted from Strictly last week after performing the Fame theme tune in a leotard and heels (at 46, respect) became a gran at 42, as did Jade Jagger (the same year she also became a mum for the third time. Go Jade); Lauryn Hill was 41 when she became a gran; while Catherine Zeta Jones became a step-gran at 48; and Ruth Jones this year at 55. While Anna Wintour and Patti Smith might not look like the internet's idea of grandmothers, the internet needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Ditto the media and just about everyone else who thinks all grannies look like Sophia from The Golden Girls.
As Sali Hughes said in last week’s episode of The Shift podcast (Opens in a new window), “Women who are menopausal now went to acid house clubs. There are women on the other side of menopause who were at the Hacienda.” She's right, there are. Loads of us. And more than a few of those women are grandparents. And to my knowledge not a single one of them wears slacks and has a grey perm!
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