Becoming a grandmother: maternal grandmothers' mental health, perceived costs, and personal growth.

Author:Shlomo, Shirley Ben

Although becoming a grandmother represents an important transition in a woman's life, it has received scant research attention. This study used the model of growth developed by Schaefer and Moos in an attempt to identify personal and environmental resources that may contribute to a first-time maternal grandmother's mental health and her perceptions of costs and sense of personal growth. One hundred and two Israeli women completed a series of questionnaires twice: (1) during their daughter's first pregnancy and (2) following the birth of their first grandchild. The independent variables included the personal resources of education, physical health, self-esteem, attachment style, and self-mastery and the environmental resources of grandmother's perception of level of intimacy with her daughter and active involvement with the grandchild. Findings reveal that education, attachment style, self-esteem, and self-mastery are associated with mental health, perception of costs, and experience of personal growth. The pattern of the correlations that emerged indicates that the transition to maternal grand-motherhood, a normative life event, may evoke both positive and negative cognitions and emotions.

KEY WORDS: maternal grandmothers; mental health; personal growth


Becoming a grandmother is a life transition that arouses complex emotions. On the one hand, it is a source of happiness, self-fulfillment, and satisfaction (Peterson, 1999; Somary & Stricker, 1998); on the other, it is associated symbolically with the notions of old age and approaching death, regardless of a woman's chronological age and vitality, and may therefore be considered a stressful event (Gauthier, 2002).

The need to adapt to both normative and stressful life events may be accompanied not only by perceptions of costs and distress, but also by enhanced well-being and mental health (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Studies indicate that those who enjoy being grandparents feel younger and hope to live longer than those who do not take pleasure in their new status (Kaufman & Elder, 2003) and that grandparent-identity meanings are related positively to self-esteem and negatively to depressive symptoms (Reitzes & Mutran, 2004). Reitzes and Mutran (2004) suggested that more positive grandparent-identity meanings may encourage a heightened sense of well-being by providing a sense of authenticity, meaning, and purpose.

Whereas the concept of costs seems obvious in the context of separation, loss of a job, or divorce, it is less self-evident when the event is basically a positive one, such as the transition to grand-motherhood. However, the tendency to disregard negative aspects of this life transition ignores the potential distress it can arouse. Furthermore, evidence from recent years indicates that distress and well-being, as well as costs and stress-related growth, may coexist (Gable & Haidt, 2005).Thus, new grandmothers may also experience a sense of personal growth alongside distress and the perception of costs.

Schaefer and Moos (1992) developed a conceptual model for understanding the positive outcomes of life crises and transitions. They noted that personal growth entails reassessment of familial and social support systems; reinforcement of personality traits like self-awareness, empathy, and maturity; and enhancement of coping skills, including efficient problem-solving and help-seeking behaviors. Schaefer and Moos's model has been already applied to events such as serious illness (Siegel, Schrimshaw, & Pretter, 2005) and, more recently, to normative life transitions as well. Specifically, two studies have shown that the transition to being a parent of a preterm baby may generate personal growth (Spielman & Taubman--Ben-Ari, 2009; Taubman--Ben-Ari, Findler, & Kuint, in press).

In their classic research of the 1960s, Neugarten and Weinstein (1964) indicated that grandparenthood contains the potential for the experience of biological renewal, continuity, self-fulfillment, a chance to succeed in a new emotional role, and indirect expansion of the self through the grandchild's achievements. According to Kornhaber (1987), grandparenthood also represents an opportunity to reexperience parenthood without the attendant responsibility. However, to the best of our knowledge, no previous study has explored the factors associated with personal growth among new maternal grandmothers.

The current study sought to fill this gap, using a prospective design to measure grandmothers' mental health and perceptions of costs and sense of personal growth at two intervals: (1) during their daughters' first pregnancy and (2) after the birth of the grandchildren. Following Schaefer and Moos's (1992) model, we examined several contributing factors: personal characteristics (operationalized as physical health, education, self-esteem, self-mastery, and attachment style of the maternal grandmother) and environmental characteristics (represented by mother--daughter intimacy and grandmother's involvement with her grandchild).


Personality resources inevitably come to bear when dealing with normative life events and transitions. Studies examining the relationship between self-esteem and coping have found that people with low self-esteem are more vulnerable to both negative (Brawn & McGill, 1989) and positive (Shimizu & Pelham, 2004) life events. Investigations relating specifically to grandparenthood have shown that higher self-esteem is associated with higher satisfaction with the grandparent role (Reitzes & Mutran, 2002).

The literature also indicates that sense of mastery in stressful situations is associated with better physical and mental health (Gable & Haidt, 2005) and with perceptions of greater personal growth (Park & Fenster, 2004).The transition to the role of grandmother is inherently one over which a woman has no control, as she typically has no influence over the timing of the event; her involvement in her grandchild's life is dependent on the parents' consent; and even when she is intensely involved, everyday decisions regarding the child's upbringing are dictated by the parents. These circumstances, which may affect the grandmother's sense of mastery, are liable to intensify her distress (Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Huck, 1993).

Another important psychological resource facilitating the regulation of emotions in stressful situations is an individual's attachment style (Bowlby, 1969). Research has shown that people with a secure attachment style assess stressful situations simply as challenges and themselves as better able to cope with them (Mikulincer 8c Florian, 1995). In contrast, individuals displaying anxious attachment encounter difficulties in regulating their emotional distress, become overwhelmed by negative emotions, and show low resistance and high anxiety when faced with stressful situations. Avoidantly attached individuals attempt to repress the negative emotions overwhelming them but fail to moderate their perceived stress (Mikulincer & Orbach, 1995). Despite indications that attachment style plays a central role in predicting responses to various situations, to the best of our knowledge, no previous empirical study has examined its contribution to women's perceptions of the transition to grandmotherhood. Studies conducted among mothers, however, suggest that those with insecure attachments are more vulnerable to symptoms of depression and lower well-being in response to stressful life events (Berant, Mikulincer, & Florian, 2001; Simpson, Rholes, Campbell, Tran, & Wilson, 2003).


In addition to internal resources, an individual's immediate environmental network plays a highly significant role in determining responses to life events and transitions (Schaefer & Moos, 1992). In particular, the level of intimacy between people in the same family unit has been shown to be a strong predictor of positive adaptation (Cassidy, 2001). One of the most intimate relationships for a mother is the one between herself and her daughter. The transition to grandmotherhood challenges this sense of intimacy by introducing dramatic changes into the lives of both women. Whereas some grandmothers may perceive grandmotherhood as enlarging their kin network, others relate to this experience in negative terms, indicating less idealization and greater individualism (Fingerman, 2000). Moreover, the changes inherent in the transition to grandmotherhood may either lead to the reemergence of old unresolved conflicts or serve as a "window of opportunity" for resolving these issues in a more mature and considered manner (Friedman, 1996).

One of the opportunities the transition to grandmotherhood offers is the chance for the grandmother to become involved in the care of her grandchild. Troll (1983) suggested that by taking on the role of the "family watchdog," the grandmother serves as a crucial resource in times of turmoil and crisis and, thus, may be able to compensate for perceived failures in the maternal care of her own daughter. Previous studies indicate that the quality of the grandmother's relationship with her grandchild is one of the main factors affecting the degree of psychological well-being she experiences and that greater involvement leads to greater satisfaction in the role of grandmother (Thomas, 1990).


The current study aimed to derive a multidimensional model of associations between personal and environmental factors that may contribute to new maternal grandmothers' mental health, perception of costs, and sense of personal growth in this normative life transition. We decided to focus on the maternal grandmother because studies indicate that the grandmother's role is unique in several ways. Previous studies have found expectant grandmothers to be more likely than grandfathers to anticipate greater satisfaction from their new role and to place more emphasis on how helpful they want to be to the...

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