Grandmothers at Work

Juggling Families and Jobs

293 pages

7 b/w figures and 7 tables

May, 2014

ISBN: 9780814729472



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Madonna Harrington Meyer is Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence and Professor of Sociology at the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is editor of Care Work: Gender, Labor, and the Welfare State and co-author of Market Friendly or Family Friendly? The State and Gender Inequality in Old Age.

All books by Madonna Harrington Meyer

Winner of the 2014 Richard Kalish Innovative Publication Award presented by the Gerontological Society of America

Young working mothers are not the only ones who are struggling to balance family life and careers. Many middle-aged American women face this dilemma as they provide routine childcare for their grandchildren while pursuing careers and trying to make ends meet. Employment among middle-aged women is at an all-time high.  In the same way that women who reduce employment hours when raising their young children experience reductions in salary, savings, and public and private pensions, the mothers of those same women, as grandmothers, are rearranging hours to take care of their grandchildren, experiencing additional loss of salary and reduced old age pension accumulation. Madonna Harrington Meyer’s Grandmothers at Work, based primarily on 48 in-depth interviews conducted in 2009-2012 with grandmothers who juggle working and minding their grandchildren, explores the strategies of, and impacts on, working grandmothers.             
While all of the grandmothers in Harrington Meyer’s book are pleased to spend time with their grandchildren, many are readjusting work schedules, using vacation and sick leave time, gutting retirement accounts, and postponing retirement to care for grandchildren. Some simply want to do this; others do it in part because they have more security and flexibility on the job than their daughters do at their relatively new jobs.  Many are sequential grandmothers, caring for one grandchild after the other as they are born, in very intensive forms of grandmothering.  Some also report that they are putting off retirement out of economic necessity, in part due to the amount of financial help they are providing their grandchildren. Finally, some are also caring for their frail older parents or ailing spouses just as intensively. Most expect to continue feeling the pinch of paid and unpaid work for many years before their retirement. Grandmothers at Work provides a unique perspective on a phenomenon faced by millions of women in America today.


  • "Grandmothers at Work presents the results of Madonna Harrington Meyer's pathbreaking study that explores in depth the stresses and benefits that come from caring for grandchildren while employed. The book is based on extensive interviews with grandmothers who are working and doing childcare. The interviews are coupled with quantitative data that put the issues into broader perspective. Beautifully written and carefully analyzed, Grandmothers at Work makes a significant contribution to our understanding of complex family dynamics in the 21st century."

    —Jill Quadagno, author, The Transformation of Old Age Security

  • "This book is full of insights into the joys, challenges, strains, and costs, often financial, faced by grandmothers who work for pay and provide care for their grandchildren. The voices of the diverse older women who hold these two demanding roles are vivid and compelling. And discussion of policies— both work and family—that would make things easier for all are woven throughout."

    —Linda Waite, author, Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance

  • "Because public policy provides relatively little assistance to working parents in the U.S., grandmothers have become an economically important as well as emotionally precious source of child care. In this fascinating study, Madonna Harrington combines quantitative and qualitative research to explore new terrain in the sociology of care. Her sensitive and discerning analysis reveals the circumstances under which grandmothering can become a stressful obligation rather than a voluntary joy."

    —Nancy Folbre, author, Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family

  • “Harrington Meyer has written a much-needed addition to the literature on women and work in the contemporary US. Given the dearth of meaningful public policy to assist mothers raising children in the US, some 46 percent of grandmothers over 50, who themselves work part or full time, also provide quality child care to grandchildren. The author utilizes numerous verbatim quotations from 48 informants to develop a nuanced picture of the many struggles and rewards these women experience. She intersperses data from the Health and Retirement Survey of 2010 with the interviews to provide a statistical portrait of the working grandmothers caring for their grandchildren. Acknowledging that the sample of grandmothers interviewed is not representative, the author takes steps to include women who vary by region, class, occupation, race, sexual orientation, and age. Harrington Meyer finds that grandparenting, like parenting, has increased in intensity, and that many of the grandmothers provide huge amounts of time and financial assistance to their grandchildren, even while many are also assisting frail elderly kin and depleting their own resources and even health. Overall, the grandmothers testify to the immense joy they receive from involvement in their grandchildren's growth and care. This clearly written book is a worthy addition to most collections. Summing Up: Highly recommended.” 


  • "With grandmothers playing dominant roles in families, this book underscores the commitment, dedication, and even sacrifices that they make.”

    American Journal of Sociology

  • “The book as a whole represents a fascinating insight into the care provided by grandmothers in the US context. It brings a rare intergenerational perspective to issues around labour force participation of mothers of young children, as well as being highly relevant to debate over extending working lives against a backdrop of population ageing.”

    Work, Employment, and Society