Grandparents are rejecting traditional “Grandma” and “Grandpa” titles and opting for originality. (Photo: Cameron Whitman/Stocksy)
My mom talked about becoming a grandmother long before I got married, so when she officially became one with the birth of my now two-and-a-half year-old twins, I assumed she’d use the actual title “Grandma.” But when my girls were newborns, it occurred to me that, out of respect, I should ask my mom what she’d like to be called. She said she’d given it a lot of thought and decided that her name would be “Marmie,” based off Little Women, the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott.
In the book, the character, who is based on Alcott’s own beloved mom, is called Marmee, but my mom also went with her own spelling. “I thought it would be a lovely, unique way to have my babies refer to me,” she told me. And I couldn’t agree more.
Turns out, my mom is not alone in ditching the traditional grandparent name for something more unique and meaningful. A Baby Center survey of 3,000 parents found that more than half of respondents said that the grandparents in their families chose their own names, with 20 percent opting for unique titles, such as Zippy, Vava, and Yubba.
There are several factors that may be influencing grandparents to stray from tradition. For starters, unique nicknames may just be practical — due to the large number of blended families in the U.S. (a result of divorce and remarriages), the names “Grandma” and “Grandpa” may simply be taken, forcing the third or fourth set of grandparents to be more original.
But there are also psychological factors. In our youth-obsessed culture, being a “Grandpa” may sound, well, ancient to some, particularly since new grandparents are relatively young. The average age for new grandmothers is about 50 years old, per U.S. Census Bureau data, while the average age for new grandfathers is 54 years old, according to MetLife.
“Even at 60 years old, you don’t necessarily want to be thought of as ‘Grandma,’” David Elkind, PhD, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University and author of Parenting on the Go: Birth to Six, A to Z, tells Yahoo Parenting. “People don’t want to think of themselves in that way, even though, fortunately, we’re healthier now than those in other generations.”
Nancy K. Schlossberg, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, and author of Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose, agrees. “We’re all very age biased,“ she tells Yahoo Parenting. "We want to live longer but we don’t want to look like we’ve lived longer.”
In other cases, the issue is less about vanity than facing mortality. “Being a grandparent for most people means that you’re getting on in years,” says Schlossberg. “We don’t want to be old.”
There’s also something thrilling and empowering about choosing a new name. “This generation of grandparents takes the whole naming process more seriously than ever,” Lin Wellford, author of The New Grandparents Name Book, tells Grandparents.com. “How many times in your life do you get to name yourself?”
Schlossberg agrees: “I think grandparents want individual identities, and this is making a statement: 'I’m not one of thousands,’” she says. That line of thinking also makes sense for Baby Boomer grandparents who may have independent streaks having grown up in the liberal 1960s.
Whichever name grandparents choose to be called, there’s one opinion that even they can’t overrule: A child’s. “Making up your own name can be fine as long as it’s within the capabilities of the child,” says Elkind. “With little ones, you’re limited by what a 1-year-old is able to pronounce. You can tell [the chosen name] to the child, and he or she may turn it around and make it something else.”