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Socio-structural Changes Affecting Grandparenthood

Major changes in family structure and women's status during the twentieth century also affected the role of the grandparent. Often socio-structural changes had consequences not just for the demographic aspects of grandparenthood but also for the relational aspects as well. Increasing diversity of family structure, manifested in high rates of divorce, single parenthood, and teen parenthood, has created new roles and responsibilities for grandparents. Additionally, as women's status rose throughout the century, grandparents were challenged to adjust from traditional to modern modes of interaction.

In a society where large percentages of children spend at least a portion of their lives in one-parent homes, grandparental roles become more blurred and less well defined. High rates of divorce present grandparents with a variety of possibilities, highly dependent on the attitudes and behaviors of the middle generation. For maternal grandparents, divorce of their adult child often means an added set of instrumental and emotional responsibilities and, therefore, closer ties with grandchildren. This stems, in part, from the common practice of awarding custody to the mother, who then turns to her parents for increased support. For just that reason, the relationships between grandchildren and paternal grandparents tend to suffer after a divorce. Although attention has been focused more on the shrinking ties between the cross-generations after a divorce, remarriage brings with it the possibility of new family roles (such as step-grandparent and step-grandchild) and grandparents often find themselves with additional family roles. The complexities that arise in family constellations as a result of divorce have had another unintended effect on grandparent/grandchild relationships. Divorces among the middle generation have prompted policy action to assure biological grandparents the legal right to maintain ties with their grandchildren.

The steep rise in the divorce rate during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in legislation in all fifty states that allowed grandparents to petition the court for visitation rights with their grandchildren. Although Congress called for a uniform statute as early as 1983, there is, as of 2001, still a wide variety of state policies. At one extreme are several states that allow grandparents to petition for visitation under any circumstances. More frequent are the state policies that specify certain conditions that must be met in order to file, such as the disruption of the child's family through death or divorce, an unfit parent, or a prior custodial role by the grandparent. In virtually all cases, the court must weigh these circumstances against the best interests of the child, and it is such a determination that makes this a complex legal action. At the onset of the twenty-first century, grandparents' rights have become an issue at both the state and federal levels.

One-parent households do not just result from divorce; single, never-married parents and teen parents also contribute to the late-twentieth-century phenomenon of the one-parent household. Traditionally, grandparents have often played the role of family rescuers, and, increasingly, they are being called on to support single and teen mothers during times of family hard-ship. That support most often takes the form of instrumental aid, such as financial assistance and babysitting, but grandparents are increasingly enlisted as primary caregivers for their grandchildren when crises, such as the illness, death, substance abuse, or incarceration of a parent, occur. The rising number of caregiver grandparents has necessitated a redirection of research and policy efforts to explore and deal with the immediate and long-term consequences for both grandparents and grandchildren.

Over the last century, society moved in the direction of less differentiated gender roles and that trend has significant implications for the role of grandparents. Whereas traditional studies have emphasized the primacy of the grandmother over the grandfather in family relationships and the maternal grandparents over the paternal grandparents, current research challenges or at least refines that conclusion. As the status of women has increased, mothers and grandmothers are more likely to be engaged in jobs and careers than in the past; fathers and grandfathers are more likely to be engaged in family tasks than in the past. A blurring of the division of labor within families may indicate a more balanced perception of grandparental roles in the future.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Grandparenthood - The Demography Of Grandparenthood, Socio-structural Changes Affecting Grandparenthood, Grandparent/grandchild Relationships, Diversity In Grandparenthood