Grandparents as Parents
A Survival Guide for Raising a Second Family
By Sylvie De Toledo, Deborah Edler Brown
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2013 Sylvie de Toledo and Deborah Edler Brown
All rights reserved.
Becoming a parent again is not a first choice. It's a last alternative.
—Barbara Kirkland, founder of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
Sometimes the call comes at night, sometimes on a bright morning. It may be your child, the police, or child protective services. "Mama, I've messed up...." "We're sorry. There has been an accident...." "Mrs. Smith, we have your grandchild. Can you take him?" Sometimes you make the call yourself—reporting your own child to the authorities in a desperate attempt to protect your grandchild from abuse or neglect. Often the change is gradual. At first your grandchild is with you for a day, then four days, a month, and then two months as the parents slowly lose control of their lives. You start out baby-sitting. You think the arrangement is temporary. You put off buying a crib or moving to a bigger apartment. Then you get a collect call from jail—or no call at all.
But whether the arrival is slow or sudden, at some point it dawns on you: You are no longer watching your grandchildren, you are raising them. Take the grand out of grandparent; you are parenting again, and your life will never be the same.
Emily Petersen knew her pregnant daughter-in-law, Sheila, was a drug addict. She knew the young woman was using drugs throughout her entire pregnancy, and she was prepared to see the effects in her newborn granddaughter—the stiff body, the frantic eyes, the shakes. What Emily was not prepared for was becoming a mother again at 59. But when she and her husband, Carter, arrived at the hospital to see the baby, they found a social worker and two bodyguards outside the hospital room. Sheila had been arrested on drug charges, and the baby was being removed. The social worker asked Emily if she would be willing to take the child. "I came in to visit a baby," Emily told her. "I didn't come to take a baby home." But her son was in tears, begging them not to send Amanda into foster care, and neither Emily nor Carter could stand the idea of not knowing where their granddaughter was. A week later they filed for custody.
Ivy Johnson had not seen her daughter Rachel in four years; she had never even met her youngest granddaughter. They lived in Arizona and had no money to travel. Then Rachel left her husband and came home with her kids. The minute she came to the door, Ivy knew something more was wrong. Within three days Rachel was diagnosed with liver cancer. Seven months later she died, leaving Ivy to raise five young grandchildren in a one-bedroom apartment.
There is nothing new about a grandparent raising a child in a crisis. For centuries grandparents have taken over when their grandchildren were orphaned by disease or war or when financial troubles split a family. They have also stepped in to support single mothers and widowed or divorced parents of both sexes. Moreover, there is a proud tradition of intergenerational families in working-class neighborhoods as well as in African American and Hispanic communities of all income levels.
What is new are the numbers: of grandparents, of grandchildren, of crises. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 7.8 million children under 18 (one in 10) were living with at least one grandparent in 2009—a 64 percent increase in almost two decades. About half of those children—about 5.4 million—lived in the grandparent's home, and nearly two million had no parents present at all. And the real numbers are probably higher: Many grandparents don't acknowledge or recognize that they are taking full-time care of their grandchildren; perhaps they only watch them four days a week or are ashamed to admit that their own children can't parent. Many don't believe the situation is permanent. "What's wrong with my generation that we can't or won't raise our kids?" asks one young mother in Texas. The answer paints a picture of growing tragedy in American families.
AMERICA 'S CHILDREN IN CRISIS
Grandparents raise grandchildren for one reason: because the children need someone to raise them. It was true a hundred years ago, and it is true today. Most grandparents had other plans for this stage of their lives; raising another child wasn't part of them. To quote a grandmother in Oregon: "The bottom line of this whole thing is I didn't need another child; the child needed a mother."
On the other hand, there are many reasons why these children need their grandparents. One writer pinned the cause on what he called the four D's: drugs, divorce, desertion, and the death of a parent. Indeed, illness, accident, suicide, and murder leave numerous children without parents to care for them, and drugs and alcohol shatter thousands of young families each year. But child abuse, incarceration, and teen pregnancy also contribute to the growing number of children without stable homes, while joblessness, economic insecurity, and military deployment of a single parent or both parents can create even more need for grandparental support. Most families suffer from a combination of problems, and the rate at which all these problems are growing is frightening. The statistics point to a nation of children in crisis:
One in two marriages ends in divorce. More than one million children experience divorce each year. Some parents go on to remarry with little interest in their own offspring.
Teen pregnancy rates are high. Nearly half a million children are born to teenagers in the United States each year.
Over three million reports of child abuse are made in the United States each year, but each report can involve multiple children.
The prison population has exploded. Over 50 percent of inmates—men and women—are parents of dependent children.
More women are abusing drugs. Every year between 550,000 and 750,000 children are born with drugs in their systems.
Between 7,000 and 12,000 children a year lose a parent to suicide.
Many of these children end up in foster care, separated from their siblings and cared for by strangers. But the foster care system itself is in crisis, with a rising demand for care and a shrinking number of qualified foster parents.
All this leaves grandparents, and other relatives, as one of the few safety nets protecting these children from an increasingly precarious future. In fact, as of 2011, over 50 percent of children placed in out-of-home care in Los Angeles County were placed with grandparents and other relative caregivers.
Whether your grandchild lives with you because of drugs, death, military deployment, abuse, or abandonment, there are certain factors that are not responsible for this second parenthood, despite what people think.
There are several reactions that appear, like clockwork, each time a discussion turns to grandparents as parents. They are assumptions that allow people to explain away the phenomenon, to pretend that it doesn't touch them, and to put the blame, somehow, on the victim:
"It's a black problem, right?"
"It's a poor problem—or an urban problem—isn't it?"
"Well, those grandparents probably deserve it if they messed up their first set of kids."
These biases exist as much in the judge deciding a custody case as in the person watching the news. They are responsible for much of the intolerance you may encounter as you try to find help for yourself and protection for your grandkids. These assumptions imply that the "second-time parenting" is something that happens to someone else, when the sad truth is that each and every grandparent is only one or two tragedies away from the decision to raise a grandchild.
If you and the children you care for are ever to receive the help you desperately need and deserve, we must see through these myths and acknowledge the true breadth and scope of the grandparenting phenomenon.
Myth 1: It's an Urban, Minority Problem
Say "grandparents as parents" to people, and, for many, certain pictures come to mind: Black faces. Brown faces. City dwellers. Families in poverty. These pictures are not inaccurate, but they are incomplete. Raising grandchildren is not strictly an urban, poor, or minority problem. If it were, it would be no less of a social crisis. But it is not. It is an international phenomenon. Grandparents are raising grandchildren in places as different from one another as New York City, Honolulu, London, and Paducah, Kentucky. In recent years, I have met professionals working with relative caregivers in Canada, Puerto Rico, and The Netherlands, and I've heard stories from such far-flung places as Australia and Tanzania. I doubt there is a country in the world where you would not find grandparents raising grandchildren.
Parenting a grandchild is a necessity born of tragedy, and tragedy has no regard for location, ethnicity, religion, class, or race. Grandparenting is color-blind. It is also class-blind. The same can be said of the drug epidemic that drives it.
Drugs and alcohol account for more than 80 percent of grandparent families. They show up combined with teen pregnancy, abuse, neglect, and abandonment. They show up in connection with incarceration and murder. Moreover, suburban, middle-class, and white families are not immune from addiction; they only hide it better. Middle-class addicts may have better access to private drug treatment programs and may be less likely to end up in jail. Private doctors may be less likely to question pregnant women about drugs and alcohol than are inner-city doctors in public clinics and county hospitals. To quote one grandmother, "Drugs affect us all, whether you live in the streets or in a mansion." So does tragedy. Both are indiscriminate. Who you are and where you live are not to blame for your situation, and neither are you.
Myth 2: It's Your Fault
Grandparents hear it all the time. "If you raised a drug addict, how can we trust you to raise this child?" It's a question that hangs in the air, spoken or unspoken. It floats through the legal system, where judges and social workers may wonder to what extent the grandparents are responsible for the adult child's inability to parent.
It even haunts grandparents themselves: "What did we do wrong?" "Is this our fault?" "Are we grandparenting because we failed as parents?" One grandmother feels guilty because she worked nights as a nurse; she fears that may be why her daughter is on drugs. Another is afraid that she didn't love her son enough, that perhaps she wasn't there when he needed her, and that it drove him to drugs.
Let me set the record straight. You did not raise your children to be drug addicts, welfare mothers, prostitutes, or even irresponsible parents. Did you make mistakes in childrearing? Probably. Most people do. Are there things you could have done differently? Certainly. We all have 20/20 hindsight. But you did not cause your child's addiction or the abuse or neglect of his or her own child. You did the best you could with what you knew at the time. Again and again, I see families where two or three children grow up to be upstanding citizens and competent parents and one loses control of her life: The New Jersey grandparents who raised a talented musician, a successful accountant, and a young woman who became addicted to drugs. The Montana grandparents who raised three boys—an architect, a county sheriff, and a drug addict. How are these grandparents to be blamed for their children's failings?
Even when child abuse or addiction seems to run in a family—and these problems can be cyclical—grown people have a choice about whether to continue the cycle or break it. There are many adults who were abused as children who do not grow up to be abusers and many children of addicts who take a different path. "It is the use of substance that creates substance abuse problems," says one psychologist. "We have a whole society that has problems with that, and that is certainly not the making of any particular grandparent."
No one makes a person take drugs, abandon a baby, or abuse a child. Whatever choices you made as parents are past you. You did the best you could with the tools you had. Your children are now adults, and they are making their own choices.
THE REASONS FOR GRANDPARENTING
There are many complicated reasons why grandchildren need grandparents to care for them. But, in the end, the reasons you take them in are straightforward and simple: love, duty, and the bonds of family. Over and over I hear the same refrains: "We want to keep the kids together." "We're all he has." Often you are the only one standing between your grandchild and foster care. I have seen many grandparents disrupt their lives, their finances, and their health to keep their grandchildren together and away from care by strangers.
Anne Sutter's grandson Gregory was born in a crack house, and his mother was arrested on drug-related charges. At 60 years of age and on a limited income, Anne was not prepared to care for an infant, but there was that tiny baby, born stiff and distorted, with drugs in his system, and Anne couldn't say no. She recalls, "I looked at him and thought to myself, 'Nobody else will love my baby; they will look at him and think he's a thing.'"
"I'd do it all again," says another grandmother, even though her boyfriend left her when the grandkids arrived. "You do it because you're family. Nowhere, no way can you ever replace that."
A grandfather calls it a labor of love: "I don't think I could live with it if they went to somebody else."
Taking Immediate Action
I live with my grandma because my mom left me on a hotel bench to go get a cup of coffee. You're not supposed to leave babies by theirselves.
—Erica, age seven
Late one Saturday night the phone call came: Leah Croft's 18-month-old grandson had been left unattended in an apartment. The little boy had tried to feed himself dry oatmeal and had started choking. Someone had called the police, and child protective services had removed the baby from his mother. They wanted Leah to take him in. Leah was already raising her daughter Jill's six-year-old twins but, because of Jill's transient lifestyle, had only seen her grandson three times before that night. At 10:30 P.M., Josh arrived in the arms of a social worker. Dressed in a sleeper that had the legs cut off because it was too small for him, he had no socks, no shoes, no bottle, no car seat, and only the diaper he was wearing. The next day was a frenzy. In addition to buying baby supplies, Leah had to find a sitter so she could go to work Monday morning. She had to buy diapers with her credit card because she didn't have enough cash. No one from social services told her she was eligible for government aid for the baby, and when she called to ask about it, she got the runaround. "For five months I didn't get one dime," she fumes. "Not one dime!"
Whether a grandchild arrives in one night or over a period of months, few grandparents plan, anticipate, or prepare for a second parenthood. Your home and lifestyle are geared to adult living. You are not expecting these children or these changes. Instead of one small baby, you may, like Ivy Johnson, acquire several children at once, all at different ages with different needs. You may find yourself facing complex emotional, financial, and legal situations that you are rarely prepared for. You may have to resolve problems overnight that most parents address over a period of months, if not years. While each family has different needs, there are a few things that every grandparent should look into as soon as possible:
Consider other options. Some grandparents don't have the health or resources to raise a second family, but they do it anyway. A few, however, have been able to place their grandchild with another family member, perhaps a son or daughter who already had children and was willing to raise this child as well. If you have family members who can help out, you might consider letting them step in or at least sharing the responsibility with them. Parenting your grandchildren not only disrupts your life but deprives the children of grandparents who can spoil them and send them home for their parents to deal with. The children have already lost an important relationship with their parents; now they are losing a precious relationship with you. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Grandparents as Parents by Sylvie De Toledo, Deborah Edler Brown. Copyright © 2013 Sylvie de Toledo and Deborah Edler Brown. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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