Expanding on the Grandmother Effect
About an 18 minute read. Download the free PDF here.
The “Grandmother Hypothesis,” or Grandmother Effect, is the idea that the presence of grandmothers helping in the care of their grand-offspring has been an important factor in human survival and evolution.
I think that the powers of older women extend far beyond babysitting (valuable as that is), and I think we need their contributions more now than ever before. Here's why.
Small screen readers please note: this is a long and complex article, not easy to read on a small screen.
You might prefer to download the PDF or read this later on a big screen.
Wise Woman Ways
It's a way of thinking that embraces and honors our relationship to the Earth, to each other, and the entire web of life in which we belong.
A "wise woman" way of looking at life suggests that we let go of trying to fix or reject our imperfect selves or the unwanted "other" (be the other a pathogen, a weed, your contrary spouse, a difficult person at work, a person of a different race or political leaning, or any other kind of "other").
Instead of fixing and rejecting, this deeply feminine perspective focuses on relating and nourishing, which empowers us to move toward building health and wholeness rather than exploiting and destroying it.
When we look through the wise woman lens we go from feeling as if we are alone in an unfriendly universe, to seeing how we belong, how we are interconnected with each other and with all other lifeforms, and how humans can be a force for good on planet earth.
Matrix cultures are built on the natural fact that women give and sustain life, through their bodies, their love, attention, work, and their arts.
[These] matrilineal cultures share worldwide patterns, [including strong] egalitarian, communitarian values of peace and for life."
Max Dashu, "Matrix Cultures"
"Wise Women ways" of seeing and being in the world have always been available to us; in the words of Corinna Wood, "the Wise Woman path is a process of remembering what we already know.”
I don't think you have to be a particular gender or age to recognize and live in Wise Woman ways. But I do think that women, and especially older women, are particularly able to remember and re-awaken and apply these wise, often subtle, holistic, nourishing approaches.
On growing older
A friend asked me recently how I feel about growing older and approaching menopause. (I turned 50 this year.) I replied, “I’m embracing it. I’ve earned it.” This is my second growing up, and I’m making the most of it.
In Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Deepak Chopra writes, “The later years should be a time when life becomes whole. The circle closes and life’s purpose is fulfilled.”
That’s certainly the way it feels for me: I’m becoming more whole, and I’m loving that aspect of this time in my life.
Every wrinkle and sag, every grey hair (there actually aren’t many grey hairs yet, which is a shame because I’m sure they’d make me look wiser), every pause for consideration before moving my body in ways that have come easier in the past – I embrace them all.
Not because I like having to move more carefully than I did when I was younger, but because I like having to pause – it facilitates presence.
These wrinkles and sags and pauses are mine, and they’re helping me feel more deeply into myself, helping me feel more grounded, more present, and more whole.
The healthy maturation of human beings
For so much of my life I’ve been trying to run away from a self who felt unwanted and unworthy, and who I would gladly have left behind forever if I could. That was, I realize in hindsight, exhausting, demoralizing, and impossible. Wherever I went, there I was.
Now I’m discovering that—surprise!—I’m actually okay.
I'm not a bad, shameful, unworthy person. And neither, in case you were wondering, are you.
Our culture measures the worth of children in “good behavior” that reflects well on parents, caregivers, and teachers. We measure the worth of adults in visible wealth, status, followers, beauty (defined by very narrow criteria), youth, and power3.
No wonder we have difficulty seeing and identifying our own intrinsic worth.
Such a culture impoverishes us all, at every life stage, making it much harder than it should be for us to grow into our power as fully functioning adults.
It’s critical that we recognize this and that we consciously seek to keep growing in spite of it, because there is a desperate need for powerful, fully functioning adults in the world today.
Powerfully, fully functional adults are needed to hold families and communities together, to guide the children, and to mentor emerging adults. And they're needed to take care of the web of life, to take responsibility for repairing it, renewing it, participating in it, enriching it, so that the children and grandchildren can thrive.
Growing older does not mean becoming less useful or less needed. Quite the opposite.
The Role of the Grandmothers
As the eastern sky began to lighten on the last morning of a recent camping trip, I went to the rocks above our campsite to do some stretches and a meditation.
I'm a very amateur meditator at the best of times. On this occasion I was more distracted than ever, because as the sun rose I became aware of another meditator on the bluff above me. I recognized her as the mother of a teenager from our group, a woman a few years older than me.
And then another woman from our group, also a few years older than me, walked silently into sight on a rock slab below me and began a yoga routine facing the sunrise.
My focus was lost, no matter how I tried to sink back into the landscape. But never mind my poor meditation skills; there was a different kind of magic in my session on that morning. I hold both of these women in high regard, and I felt comforted by their presence.
Why should I be comforted by the presence of older women sitting on rocks and stretching in the morning sunlight, aside from the fact that they’re my friends and I like being around them?
To answer that question, I need to share a perspective about older women that is not mainstream in our culture, and I’d like to begin to illustrate it by telling you about grandmother whales and grandmother trees4.
Scientists know of four species other than humans in which the female loses her fertility when she has lived only half her lifespan5.
They are orcas (killer whales), beluga whales, pilot whales, and narwhals. These are all toothed whales, which have strong, stable social structures.
In these four species of whales, the male’s typical lifespan is nearly over around the time his female counterpart is losing her fertility and embarking on the second half of her life.
Scientist have been searching for a reason why a female whale would outlive her fertility. What possible use could she be, if she can’t reproduce?
Turns out, the role of the post-reproductive female whale is a leadership role. Whale families, called pods, are led by the oldest female in the group.
Among other things, grandmother whale remembers where to go in lean years when food is scarce. Which to me indicates that whales learn and accumulate knowledge throughout their lives, and that this knowledge is passed on to subsequent generations not as a stored repository or instinct, but in a dynamic process of living and learning that’s completely dependent on the presence of older female whales.
Studies have found that when a grandmother whale dies too soon, her descendants are much more likely to die early deaths also.
When too many older females in whale communities die, entire pods can weaken and collapse – especially now, when whales and the ocean systems they rely on are so compromised by threats relating to climate change, pollution, and decimation of ocean food chains.
Trees live in communities too, connected by the fungal threads of mycelium networks. Within the tree community, the oldest tree supports the younger trees via this underground web of connection6.
With roots that reach deeper and further, and with her crown way up high in the forest canopy accessing the sunlight, this tree, sometimes called the “mother tree” or the “hub tree,” provides her descendants and relatives with key nutrients and other resources that they cannot reach themselves.
The mother tree also sends warning signals about approaching threats, such as parasites or insects, that younger trees have not encountered yet.
The oldest tree that serves this role can be connected to hundreds of trees at once, increasing the survival of seedlings and the health of the community.
When these large old trees are dying, their final act of care is to send key nutrients and other resources to the other trees via the fungal networks. And if too many older trees are cut down, the whole system collapses.
Weaving the dreams for the grandchildren
Like being born, reaching adolescence, giving birth, and dying, menopause is a transition from one life-form to another.
It’s a major rite of passage that enables and empowers a woman to transition from the role of nurturer to the role of way-shower.
There is a descent into darkness, there is loss, there is change, and then a new woman, a different woman, emerges. She emerges by means of self-knowing; there is much deep, personal work to do in the metamorphosis of menopause.
Aboriginal Law Women identify a whole new role post-menopause. Not a renegotiated one, but an entirely different one.
The role of the grandmothers is to 'weave the dreams for the grandchildren.'"
Jane Hardwicke Collings, Women's Mysteries Teacher
In aboriginal culture and in other indigenous cultures, dreaming life and waking life are closely entwined.
“Dreaming,” in its many forms and with many variations and layers of meaning, has to do with maintaining culture and serving adult spiritual responsibilities, in particular the responsibility of caring for and constantly renewing the seen and unseen dimensions of the living matrix in which the people are embedded.
In this context, I would interpret “weaving the dreams for the grandchildren,” to mean something along the lines of working to ensure that the web of life, which will sustain the children, is itself sustained.
Invisible Old Women
In sharing with us the stories of the whales and the trees, science may be confirming what indigenous people have always known: older women can be wise leaders. Older women can be powerful, in a different, complementary way to the power of men. Older women have a crucial role to play in caring for and renewing the web of life that sustains us all.
Post-menopausal women on earth today number in the millions. 2030 is projected to see 1.2 billion of us, with 47 million adding to that number each year.
That’s a lot of potential for way-showing.
But, here’s the thing. It’s a lot harder to show the way if we are ourselves lost, undervalued, and unseen. In Jane Hardwicke Collings’ words:
The healing, awakening and remembering need to be done individually, by each woman as she passes through the menopausal rite of passage.
And the healing and remembering also needs to be done collectively, by all of us. As a culture, we need to remember and embrace the power of the Wise Woman Tradition.
An invisible tradition
Our culture tends not to see the contributions that older women (and older men) can make (perhaps this is partly why in developed countries, older adults are either driving around the country in camper-vans or sitting in old people's homes rather than contributing to a richer community life).
Older women in our culture are in a sense "invisible" – unseen and undervalued.
- “To say that a woman in the kitchen is engaged in healing her family and community and keeping her universe in balance is a lot to claim for making dinner, and most of us don’t see those connections.
Nourishing is an invisible process. … Nourishment through nursing and through gathering and preparing food, historically, was very often pushed into the background by white male anthropologists who were fascinated by the drama of the hunt.
- Most healthcare given worldwide (up to 99% by some estimates) is provided by mothers caring for their families’ health. This is not measured or paid for, so it’s not considered significant.
- Women, especially women of color, are invisible to white men and white male society. For hundreds of years, women have not been seen as powerful. Women healers, midwives, and herbalists are frequently written out of accounts, omitted when lists are re-copied, or known only by a husband’s name. (See “Restoring Women to Cultural Memory” and other work by Max Dashu)
And the lineage of the European Wise Woman Tradition was all but lost in the witch hunts, the systematic killings of millions of women initiated by the Church and the male-dominated medical establishment which spanned the 1300’s to the 1600’s. (See "Herstory."8)
- The Wise Woman Tradition is an oral tradition, and we have grown accustomed to believing things only if they are written down in books.
- There is no visible structure in the Wise Woman Tradition. You can’t get a degree or a certificate in it; there are no tangible markers for it.
- Each nourishing and healing encounter in the Wise Woman Tradition is unique. In the scientific worldview, a single instance of anything is worthless. The more repeatable and the easier something is to standardize (in other words, to strip it of its uniqueness) the more visible it is.
- Commonness is invisible. It’s so familiar to see a woman tending, nourishing, supporting health. What’s to note about it?
- Prevention is invisible. To prevent health issues via nourishment involves no drama, does not draw attention.”
Most history passes over women. Our names and faces are missing, our stories omitted or distorted, covered over by an endless masculine litany of kings, warlords, priests (with an occasional queen or concubine—often a woman blamed for ruining everything)."
The number one rule
If a woman chooses to be visible in our culture today, the number one rule she is required to abide by is that she must appear to be young. And if she can’t look young? She must look masculine.
Women who conform to the dominant expectations about what important people look like can get away with being prominent.
But an older woman who doesn’t look young and/or powerful? Especially if her skin is dark? What could she possibly have to offer?
Collectively, we're standing at a juncture where we get to choose between two narratives about what “reality” is, and how the world works.
One of these narratives, which Charles Eisenstein calls “the story of separation,” is based on worldviews developed during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The alternative narrative is what Charles Eisenstein calls “the story of interbeing.” This story is based on a synthesis of indigenous wisdom and 20th and 21st century science.
The table below describes the kinds of beliefs and world views that fit in each of these stories.
(Small screen readers please note the table is only available on larger screens or in the downloadable PDF. If you are on a small handheld screen, you won't see the table here).
The Story of separation
The story of interbeing
Everything is separate. What happens here makes no difference to what is happening over there. Shifting a problem away from yourself is the same as solving it.
Everything is inextricably connected. Change in any part of a system/group/pattern/constellation impacts the whole.
You can’t, for example, throw your rubbish away, because there is no “away.” And we can’t wait for “them” to solve our problems, because there is no “them,” only “us.”
If you want to change something, you must use force. The bigger the change you want, the more force you need.
Change can come about in unseen and unexpected and spontaneous ways. It is not always dependent on force.
Worth is always measurable. The worthiness of adults is measured in wealth, status, followers, beauty, youth, power.
Worth is a given, and need not be measured.
Security, certainty, and prestige are very important.
Earning money is how you obtain these things, so earning money is much more important than enjoying yourself, relating to others, or relaxing in nature.
Certainty never lasts for long.
Security comes from relationships, and from right living in relation to the living world around you.
Prestige is not needed, since individual needs are generously met by the collective and nobody needs to take anything from anybody else by force or by superiority.
Power is always obvious and is measured either in physical strength or in forces a powerful person or group can bring to bear on other people or groups.
Power is often subtle or even invisible.
Power with others (rather than power over others), arises from power within self, which in turn is seeded and nurtured by others (for example, the more experienced providing mentoring to the less experienced).
Messiness is to be avoided in all its forms.
Messiness is to be embraced and enjoyed, since it’s part of life.
Natural processes like birth, learning, growth of all kinds, are haphazard and random if left to nature; it’s better to control and standardize them, often to medicalize them.
Nature is to be trusted and aligned with.
The medical doctor and the wise woman healer
Another way to illustrate these two ways of interpreting reality is to think about how health care typically works within each of them.
Recently, I went to a medical doctor who lives in the story of separation. First, the office staff collected my data. They weighed and measured me, noted down my blood pressure and oxygen levels, heart rate… then, suitably reduced to numbers on a sheet, I was ushered into the next room to wait for the doctor.
The doctor spent more time looking at the computer screen than at me, entering data and analyzing it to come up with a diagnosis. Fifteen minutes later, typically, you leave with a pharmaceutical prescription and instructions to come back in 3 months for more testing. (In my case, I refused the prescription.)
Conversely, here’s the kind of experience I’ve had when I go to a healer who lives in the story of interbeing.
First, the healer looks into my eyes, and I feel safer immediately.
For an hour or more, she listens to me. Really listens.
I’m nourished by her undivided attention and unconditional acceptance. The healer listens to my story, rather than taking my data. She asks questions that draw parts of the story out of me that I had not previously recognized. This in itself is deeply healing.
And when finally the healer in the story of interbeing prescribes, the prescription is full of nourishment. Real food. Rest and renewal. Connection.
She may prescribe supplements, homeopathy, or other remedies, and she sometimes also calls on modern scientific medicine, but these are secondary to the nourishment; they don’t replace it.
One story makes the wise woman way invisible; the other reveals it
In the story of separation, wise woman ways of relating and nourishing are indeed invisible, because they are not measurable and can't be quantified.In the story of interbeing, feminine lore and wisdom are valued and we recognize9 the wise woman’s tremendous forgotten resources: wisdom, perspective, compassion, and nourishment.
We’ve never needed these subtle, hidden forms of power more than we do now.
Healing myself is healing the world
When I was in my twenties and thirties, I wanted to help heal the world.
Then in my early forties, painfully humbled by parenthood, I gave up that grandiose plan in favor of healing myself to lighten the baggage I would hand on to my children.
Now at 50 and with my first child bumping against adolescence, I've learned that healing myself, in a sense, is healing the world. At least, it is if you choose to inhabit the second narrative I described above, the story of interbeing.
The work of healing ourselves, one by one, privately, in the deep darkness of the low places we descend to during hard times, times of grief and loss, and during our midlife rites of passage, is the work that matures us into the kinds of adults who can hold space for the changes our world so desperately needs.
I understand now that when a person—any person, but perhaps especially an older woman—sits quietly, breathing in healing and breathing out peace, that's a recipe for powerful magic.
The magic is in the peace she engenders, in her communion with Mother Earth, and in the personal power she generates, which she will use for way-finding and peace-making in her community.
This magic is invisible because it cannot be measured or defined or standardized or duplicated or patented or commercialized.
If you’re looking for proof, I can’t provide it. I can’t quantify what happens when an old woman sits on a rock, breathing.
But regardless of proof, I was deeply comforted on that recent morning by the presence of post-menopausal women sitting in silence above a campsite full of homeschooling families as the sun rose.
I see the wise woman
I see older women, the invisible ones, like the old trees: garnering nourishment and support to share among families and children.
I see older women, the invisible ones, like the old whales: finding the way in their families and communities, showing the way.
I see older women, the invisible ones, tending to the web of life: invoking a world of peace and connection in which the children and grandchildren can thrive.
I see the wise woman. And she sees me."
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Please scroll down below the Endnotes and share your thoughts.
- The Wise Woman Tradition is described in Part 1 of Susun Weed's book Healing Wise
- From the time of the oldest known pre-historic art, evidence of the Sacred Feminine appears in the form of more than 250 figurines of women in sites scattered across Europe, Siberia and Eastern Russia. Found across a vast geographic area and dated to periods of time thousands of years apart, these figurines are all remarkably similar. By about 12,000 years ago, evidence of Her explodes, with 30,000 Goddess sculptures found from this time period in Southern Europe alone. See "When God was a Woman: An Introduction to the Sacred Feminine"
- In defining how our culture measures the worth of adults I’m paraphrasing Laura Grace Weldon, in her lovely article, "Reframing the Story."
- I came across this research about grandmother whales and grandmother trees in “Autumn Woman Harvest Queen,” Jane Hardwicke Collings’ empowering eCourse about menopause as a rite of passage.
- You can read about recent studies into menopausal whales here and here.
- Read more about the underground networks that connect the trees of the forest almost into one organism, in "Trees Talk to Each Other in a Language We Can Learn," "The Underground Mycorrhizal Network," and "Talking Trees." And for a deep dive into fungi and mycelium, Entangled Life is a fascinating read.
- Paraphrased from Healing Wise, pages 8, 9 and 10.
- Please note that this is extremely disturbing reading. Do not read it at bedtime. If you have a trauma background or are otherwise emotionally vulnerable, do not read this without trusted support.
- The world “recognize” can be broken down thus: “re” – again; “cognize,” as a verb – perceive, know, or become aware of. So, to “recognize” is to become aware of something again, that you were aware of before but had forgotten.