Becoming Grandma by Beth Bartlett

“We’ve all witnessed the power of a moment when an elder holds a newborn babe. There’s this unique bond that connects these seemingly disparate ages. However, there is nothing more profound than these two ages witnessing one another.”  – Mary DeJong

On Palm Sunday, I held my son’s newborn babe for the first time.  “Who are you?” I asked. I’d wrongly expected my grandson to be a carbon copy of my son newly born, but here he was, a whole new being, entirely himself.  We were certainly witnessing one another as we gazed into each other’s eyes. Did he know me, my voice, my touch?  Or did he also wonder, “Who are you?” I expect we will spend the next several months and years learning who we are to each other.  

What does it mean to become grandma?  My own grandmas, whom I saw only on rare occasions – Christmases, summer vacations — were very different from each other. Grandma, my father’s mother, lived in a magical upside-down house, entered on the bedroom level, with the living room, filled with Hummel figurines and cuckoo clocks, downstairs. At night, we grandchildren nestled in big beds on the sleeping porch where we listened to the cicadas sing in the summer night. I remember Grandma in her grandma dresses, her eyes magnified by cataract glasses, nearly always in the kitchen, giving us cookies – loving, sweet, tender.

My mom’s mother, Nana, arrived by bus from Detroit.  I remember her violet hair, the lemon water she drank every morning, and the sound of her voice.  Nana was a teacher and maintained that role with me – kindly, even affectionate, but with a certain reserve. I have pictures of her reading to me, but mostly I remember her teaching me how to play cribbage.  We spent hours pegging; counting — 15 -2, 15-4, and a pair are 6; seeing what surprises the crib held.  In her later years, she taught me patience as I learned calmly to repeat my answers to the questions she asked over and over again. 

Though I can see myself as the grandma baking cookies, reading books, and offering a comforting hug, I don’t envision myself as either of my grandmothers. My mother, who being older was often mistaken for my grandmother, modeled more of that role for me – being a source of great fun – laughing uproariously, playing games, taking us on picnics and cookouts, speeding around curvy roads singing “Around the corner, and under a tree . . .,” racing home to watch the sunset; but also nurturing my mind, body, and rebellious ecofeminist spirit – teaching me to love the earth, question everything, and never blindly obey; and providing security, comfort, and unconditional love.

I enter grandmahood keenly cognizant of both the honor and the responsibility the role holds. Whether as Hecate — the crone goddess who guides Persephone out from the underworld; or as Baba Yaga – the Hag Goddess who teaches Vasalisa how to be true to herself and “take care of the psychic house of the wild feminine”[i]; or Grandmother Spider who teaches the value of relationship, grandmother is a valued and respected role in cultures around the world.  As Paula Gunn Allen writes, “To her we owe our lives, and from her comes our ability to endure . . . She is the Old Woman who tends the fires of Life. She is the Old Woman Spider who weaves us together in a fabric of interconnection. She is the Eldest God, the one who Remembers and Re-members . . . .”[ii]  

Recognizing the urgency of this role in a world on a path of destruction, in 2004, thirteen indigenous grandmothers from around the world gathered to restore this wisdom of the Divine Feminine to the world. “With the profoundly loving and sustaining power of the sacred feminine in the very marrow of our bones, women can return the world to the Garden of Eden it was meant to be.”[iii] “We must be warriors with the power of love. . . . to unite the hearts of the world.”[iv]

“To be an Indian grandma is an extraordinary role,” I once heard indigenous elder Rayna Green say. “The role of grandma to teach, to be wise, and bring that wisdom to bear upon the teaching of young people is enormous.”[v] 

Elder, teacher, weaver, warrior – being grandma is all of these, yet for me, above all, becoming a grandma is a blessing. Though non-Native myself, I’m sure Green’s words still apply — “To be an Indian grandma is probably the nicest thing that could ever happen to anybody . . . .“[vi] I’ve envisioned times with my grandchild — sharing the wonder of woodland wildflowers and mosses, of stars and sunrises, delighting in waves and first snowfalls, and late-night conversations when the parents are asleep.  All that is yet to unfold. 

Spiritual writer Malidoma Patrice Somé wrote of how in the Dagara culture children spend the first few years of their lives with their grandparents. Because grandchildren come from the cosmos to which the grandparents will soon return, the grandparents need to learn all the news that the grandchild bears quickly, before the child forgets.

“Life beginning and life ending merge in the connection of young and old.   The wise ones see what others do not,” said ecotheologist Mary DeJong. Wisdom bearers – is that what grandparents and grandchildren are to each other?  Perhaps.  But the words of Brian Swimme echo most in my mind – “ . . . the primary deed of a parent is to see the beauty, and grace of children.”[vii] Even moreso is this the deed of a grand-parent — “to feel and cherish its beauty. . . . fall in love with this magnificent creature . . . celebrate its splendor.”[viii] What better role in life could there be? 

“The picture on my April calendar.  “Ganawendiwag” – meaning “they take care of each other.” Artwork by Chimakwa Nibaawii Stone, Lac de Flambeau Ojibwe.”

Who are you, dear Martin? I look forward to our getting to know each other, our growing connection, learning all you have to teach me and passing along what wisdom I’ve gleaned, and delighting together in the many wonders life holds – in other words, to becoming grandma.


Allen, Paula Gunn. 1992. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions.  Boston: Beacon Press.

DeJong, Mary. “Wild Winter.” Waymarkers.

Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. 1992. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Random House.

Green, Rayna. 1990. “American Indian Women: Diverse Leadership for Social Change,” in Lisa Albrecht and Rose M. Brewer in conjunction with the National Women’s Studies Association. Bridges of Power: Women’s Multicultural Alliances.  Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers. 61-73.

Schaefer, Carol. 2006. Grandmothers Counsel the World: Women Elders Offer Their Vision for Our Planet. Boston: Trumpeter Books.

Swimme, Brian. 1985. The Universe Is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story. Santa Fe: Bear & Company.

[i] Estes, 95.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Schaefer,144.

[iv] Ibid., 138.

[v] Green, 66.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Swimme, 32.

[viii] Ibid.

Author: Beth Bartlett

Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she helped co-found the Women’s Studies program in the early 80s. She taught courses ranging from feminist and political thought to religion and spirituality; ecofeminism; nonviolence, war and peace; and women and law. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including "Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant"; "Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought"; and "Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior." She is trained in both Somatic Experiencing® and Indigenous Focusing-Oriented trauma therapy, and offers these healing modalities through her spiritual direction practice. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, indigenous rights, and climate justice movements and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors. You can find more about her work and writing at

4 thoughts on “Becoming Grandma by Beth Bartlett”

  1. Beautiful! What a wonderful phase of life you are entering, and how lucky Martin is to have a grandmother who is so loving, thoughtful, and intentional in her new role! Your post reminds me of all the studies that have been done across cultures and time periods that show how having grandmothers involved with their grandchildren increases their grandchildren’s survival. And the ideas and quotes in your post are yet another reason why our society needs to value older women so much more than we do. Thank you for sharing this amazing experience!


  2. I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had had loving grandmothers. My mother’s parents divorced when she was young, and her stepmother wasn’t interested in my sister and me. My father’s mother (a widow) committed suicide right after my father (her only child) left to join the World War II forces. So, we grew up without grandmothers, and my two children have decided not to procreate, so I won’t know what it’s like to be a grandmother. I often fantasize about what that kind of love must be like.


    1. I’m sorry you haven’t had an experience with your own grandmothers. As I said in my post, I saw my own only very rarely. My son never knew his grandmothers either. However, he has had wonderful aunts, and I have had the opportunity to be an aunt since I was ten, and my connections with my nephews and nieces has been such a great gift and special connection. I hope you have had this opportunity. I’m glad you’ve had the opportunity to be a mother.


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