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What to Call Grandmother

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My granddaughter is now 6 months old and I still can’t decide what she should call me. I am 63, at the height of my career and attractive (I am told). Grandma or grandmother just doesn’t seem to fit. Am I obsessing or is this a real issue?

Answer: You have hit on a real issue. Boomers are starting a semantic revolution to avoid a senior citizen status. They love their grandkids but don’t like the granny image; they want younger sounding names.

Ellen Warren of the Chicago Tribune interviewed a grandmother who said, “Grandma sounds like a prim little old lady with rolled-down stocking driving along the expressway 40 miles under the speed limit, afraid to make left turns.”

Finding a name seems easy compared to larger challenges of life. Yet the name one adopts is an identity that stays forever. That name can reflect one’s self-perception, uniqueness and personal feelings about getting older.

The boomer generation continues struggling to avoid a wrinkled stereotype of aging. AARP met the challenge by changing its name from the American Association of Retired Persons to AARP. One might guess that the “R” stands for retirement.

The name change is relevant since about one third of the 39 million AARP members are working. The association’s magazine title also was changed — Modern Maturity was renamed AARP The Magazine. The cover page often highlights boomers such as Caroline Kennedy, Jamie Lee Curtis and Glenn Close.

We know that the bond between grandparents and grandchildren is special. If we ever wonder why we care so deeply for our grandchildren, it all began a million years ago in the plains of Africa. A mother gave birth to a child after a long and exhausting labor. She barely had enough energy to nurse her baby and not enough energy to feed or care for her older children. It was then, as geriatrician Dr. William H. Thomas writes in his book, “What Are Older People For? How Elders Will Save the World,” that “A miracle occurred.”

The maternal grandmother intentionally shared her food with the older children. At that moment a new pattern of support began that carried over to other families. Thomas writes that humans are the only species that have grandparents deliberately helping to raise grandchildren. He calls this grandparent support a “defining characteristic” of humans.

An article that ran Jan. 23 in the Wall Street Journal noted that experts in aging say grandparents will play a new role in the lives of their grandchildren. Many married when they were older and therefore are older grandparents. As parents, they were very involved with their children, earning the title of “helicopter parents.” Some believe they will insert themselves into the lives of their grandchildren, hopefully in even better ways.

Now let’s move on to names. The Journal article affirmed that many boomer grandmothers are rejecting traditional terms of grandma, nana and bubbe (a Yiddish term for grandmother). These words make many of them feel old.

Some have taken great pains to find what they consider proper names. For example, Ms. W. considers herself glamorous and decided to be called Glamma. (Goldie Hawn is allegedly called Glam Ma by her grandchildren.) Ms. F. who is “hip and in touch with fashion” chose to call herself Coco after fashion icon Coco Chanel.

Locally, I found families using names reflecting their roots. Baba, a short form of abuela is from the Spanish word for grandmother. Omi is the endearing term for grandmother in German that comes from the word omah. Bubs comes from the Yiddish word bubbe. And nonna is the Italian word for grandmother.

The dilemma of naming grandmother is a subject of much dialogue, as indicated in many Internet blogs. Books also have been written on the subject. Among them are “You Can Call Me Hoppe! The Grandparents’ Guide to Choosing a Name that Fits” by Lauren Charpio and “The New Grandparent Name Book” by Lin Wellford.

Thank you for your good question and good luck in finding a name before your granddaughter begins to speak. Enjoy and give that little one a big hug.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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