When my grandfather’s mother died in 1900 in rural Maine, it was his aunt who stepped in to raise him and his baby sister. When my friend Jill lost her mother in the 1950s, her Gran and other relatives in their small Southern town kept the family together by dividing up the 6 siblings among them. That way the kids saw each other at school and every Sunday afternoon. When my friend Pat’s daughter was abandoned by her husband in 1990, it was Pat who opened her home and her heart to 3 grandchildren. She and her daughter have since co-parented them to young adulthood. Last year, our neighbor Ted, took in his 6-year-old grandchild when his own daughter once again entered rehab. One of my students goes home from university every weekend to care for her 95-year-old Nanna. Why? Because she loves the grandmother who cared for her through her difficult teen years following the car accident that took both of her parents.
We all probably know, or are part of, similar families with similar stories. In every generation, grandparents (and other relatives) have become caretakers of grandchildren whose parents either died or couldn’t do the job.
Nonetheless, another stint of primary parenting certainly isn’t what most of the current 55+ generation has in mind. Ask most what they think they’ll be doing in retirement and the answers usually include cutting back on jobs and stress, finally having the time to pursue an interest, doing volunteer work, or even trying out a new business. Although delighted with their children’s children, to them their job as doting grandparents is “supposed to be” enjoying visits and maybe vacations with the grandkids, then handing them back to the parents to take their turn at doing the difficult job of raising the next generation.
But things don’t always turn out the way they are “supposed to be.” Just when they think the next stage of life is retirement and freedom from family responsibilities, many American grandparents find themselves joining the long tradition of elders assuming care for their grandchildren. In fact, almost 8 percent of children in this country are being raised by their grandparents. Fully 10 percent of grandparents are now raising their grandchildren fulltime. They represent all socioeconomic and ethnic groups and live in every state of the U.S. With the change in role come responsibilities and challenges few are prepared for. Yet they are stepping up and moving the kids in anyway.
The reasons for taking in grandchildren are many and varied. For some, the situation is temporary, caused by such things as serious illness of a parent, or military service, or transitions that come with divorce, or a mid-year move and the decision to let the kids finish out the year in their school before joining their parent. For others, the reasons are sadder and harder: the early death of parents, long-term and incapacitating illness, parental substance abuse, incarceration, homelessness, teen pregnancy and unreadiness to be a parent, or child abuse or neglect.
Whatever the reason, if you are in this situation, you are not alone. Fortunately, people who study such things have studied this too and have identified some predictable issues. Even more fortunately, systems and agencies have been developed over the last ten years that can offer some support and practical help.
What Are the Challenges?
- Your own feelings. However much you love your grandchildren, and especially if they are hard to love, taking them into your home and your life is not an uncomplicated change. Further, it’s one thing to be handling kids when their parents are doing something to be proud of and you’ve volunteered to help out. It’s quite another when an adult child has failed as a parent and the grandkids are left on your doorstep.
Whatever the circumstances, most grandparents feel a combination of resentment about the situation balanced by perhaps relief that a decision has been made, love for the grandchildren and anger and sadness about their parent or parents, gratitude that they can provide for the kids and the genuine wish that they didn’t feel they had to. It’s okay. In fact, it’s important to feel your feelings. The challenge is not to visit whatever negative feelings are in the mix on the children. They are only children and they are trying to manage their own feelings. It’s not fair to ask them to manage yours.
- The children’s feelings. This will of course vary with the age and stage of the children and the reason they are with you. Whatever the reason, separation from a parent, even an abusive parent, is experienced by children as loss. They need room to feel their sadness, their anger, and their longing for their parent without feeling that they are being ungrateful or letting you down.
- Relationship with your adult child. Your relationship with your own child will also undoubtedly change. You are now raising her or his child. That’s different from babysitting. Raising a child means that you need to have authority. There will be times that you disagree with the children’s parent about how to raise them. It needs to be your call. There will be times you will find yourself torn, wanting to be supportive of your own child when you know that what you really need to do is to is reduce the stress on the grandchildren. All this puts strain on your own parent-child relationship.
- Relationship with the grandchildren. Being the day-to-day nurturer and disciplinarian instead of the magical grandma or grandpa who drops in now and then changes things. A visiting grandparent can spoil the kids a little and let them get away with things you would never tolerate if you were with them every day. Now you are with them every day. You and the kids may all feel a loss when you make the shift from being a visitor to being in charge.
- Your own health. Hopefully you are fit and healthy. Hopefully you will stay that way. But it’s sometimes a challenge to get up early to get kids off to school and to stay up late to make sure high school kids arrive home safe after being out. Sometimes it’s just hard to keep up with kids at a time of life when most of us slow down.
- Social isolation. You may have gotten used to spending time with your friends and renewing your relationship with your spouse by going out now and then. Taking care of kids again means spending time at the kids’ activities, making play dates, keeping appointments with doctors and dentists, and going to meetings at their schools. By the time the weekend comes around, you may just want to stay home instead of going out. It’s a challenge to maintain your own social calendar when the kids take up most of your leisure time.
- Finances. Living on a fixed income or pension? Managing by working full- or part-time? There’s no way around it. Kids are expensive. Infants and very young children need someone at home. You may find you have to leave or reschedule a job or use savings you thought would see you through your own retirement. Raising children again may mean a reduction in the standard of living you thought you would have at this stage of life.