The Second Time Around: Grandparents Raise a New Generation

By Amy Nilson June 15, 2009 09:28

Paula Flynn* of Sonora had just finished registering her 5-year-old granddaughter for kindergarten – and beamed as she shared with friends how impressed the teacher was with Tessa’s counting and reading skills. “I’m going to be able to be a room mother, and help with field trips and we’re joining Girl Scout Daisies,” she says, giving Tessa a squeeze. “We’re going to have so much fun!”

At age 69, Paula didn’t envision this as her retirement, but she doesn’t spend much time worrying about that. She was awarded custody of Tessa as an infant because both parents were battling drug addictions, and hasn’t looked back.

“It’s not what I expected, but I’m here to protect her and keep her safe,” Paula says. And this time around, she has more time, more experience and more financial stability. When it gets to be a strain, she calls on friends, her church community and a local support group for grandparents.

“I know this is all worth it,” she says, looking over at Tessa, “and you sure get a lot of hugs.”

Complicated issues

Flynn is certainly not alone.

Nationally, more than 6 percent of children live in a grandparent-headed household, and in Tuolumne County, officials estimate the figure may be slightly higher. The 2000 Census put the figure at about 350 Tuolumne County households where a grandparent was the primary caregiver – and local advocates expect the number to rise with the economy’s woes.

“We know we’re going to be seeing a lot more people facing this, as parents lose jobs and homes,” says Linda Zach, executive director of the Area 12 Agency on Aging. “It’s a worry.”

Grandparents who take on primary parenting shoulder significant financial, emotional and physical demands, and it can quickly become overwhelming, says JoAnn Pechota, a social worker who leads a local support group for grandparents raising grandchildren. They often must navigate legal issues, a complicated health care system, emotional needs, financial support, strains on their own marriage or the stresses of solo caregiving.

Heartbreak is nearly always at the core of the situation, Pechota says, but unconditional love makes it work.

“In all the years I’ve been doing this,” Pechota says, “I’ve never had one grandparent feel they weren’t going to make it. They might look for help, but one way or another they figure it out.

“For the children, the situation is almost always better, and for the grandparents, not one of them would do it differently.”

Most of the time, the family dynamics are tremendously complicated – especially when a grandparent is stepping in to care for very young children or kids with special needs who are coming from unstable homes or a family tragedy.

“We’re blessed, because Russell* is such a good boy and he’s doing very well,” says a Twain Harte grandfather raising his 12-year-old grandson. “But it’s complicated. We can’t have any contact with my daughter, and she’s still nearby. That’s really difficult.”

Giving a stable home

The most frustrating times, Pechota says, can be the periods of chaos brought on by the absent parents, especially if drug use is involved.

“The grandparents need to learn how not to react and how to help keep life stable for the sake of the kids,” Pechota says. “That’s really hard.”

In some cases, grandparents have to cope with thorny legal battles and constantly worry about losing custody. In others, they hold out hope for recovery.

“I waited for years before taking on guardianship,” says one Sonora grandmother raising her two grandsons, now ages 9 and 14. “I was fully hoping their parents would get their life together and come back.”

Five years later, she has accepted that it won’t happen.

“I raised my daughter, and I know she’s a good person, but she got off track,” she says. “But we’re doing fine now. It’s not what we had planned, but the boys are doing well. And I’m finding a certain amount of joy in doing things I couldn’t do with my own kids because I was young, I was working and struggling to make ends meet.”

She and her husband have had to figure out how to mesh different parenting styles. “This is a second marriage for both of us and we never raised children together,” she says. “That was a new wrinkle – but we’re working it out.”

It’s also difficult to help the kids accept the situation – and find how to explain enough but not too much.

Paula Flynn answers her granddaughter’s questions honestly, keeping information straightforward and age-appropriate.

“It’s not that their parents don’t love them,” she says. “The kids will see that for themselves. They’ll figure it out. If you talk against their parent, they’ll tend to blame you. If they figure it out on their own, they don’t blame anyone.”

A spoiler on spoiling

Many grandparents say one of the hardest parts is having to forgo grandparenting so much of the time.

“You want to spoil them, but you know you can’t,” says a Columbia grandmother who is raising her 8-year-old grandson. “At least not all of the time.”

That’s a common emotion shared at the grandparent support group, Pechota says. “People have to grieve some for that loss.”

But grandparents also bring a lot of experience and confidence this second time around.

“You know the sun is going to come up tomorrow,” says one grandmother at the support group, after telling how her youngest grandson got poison oak from building a fort in the yard.

Sonora grandparent Kathi Bramblett says she’s glad to be able to offer that perspective to her grandchildren and her son. She and her husband, Larry, have been caring for their three young grandchildren during the week. Her son’s fiancé passed away last year; he’s out of work and struggling to get back on his feet, so they’ve stepped up to juggle the kids’ schedules of school and activities.

“We have a good relationship with our son, and it’s pretty easy for me now that I’m retired,” Kathi says. “It was a lot more complicated when we were raising our own kids as working parents. We’re glad we can be here for them.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff

“It’s certainly not the same as raising your own kids,” says Anna Mae Guimarin, who 11 years ago adopted her grandson, Joseph. “You’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff, and I think that helps you enjoy the kids more.”

Anna Mae and her husband, Bob, adopted Joseph when he was eight, to get him away from a difficult stepfamily situation. His mother moved out of state and he had little contact with her growing up, so his grandparents were all he had.

“I was 64 at the time we adopted him,” Anna Mae recalls. “We had just retired, and we just took him everywhere with us. We traveled with him a good bit around the country.”

Joseph, now 20 and away at college, went to all their Model A club outings and to Navy reunions, she says. “He spent a lot of time with old folks, and he never seemed to mind.”

They, in turn, went to a lot of school band performances and plays.

“It kept us pretty busy and involved,” she says. “And we were lucky. He was always a pretty good kid. I hope we made a difference for him and gave him the tools he needs. Grandkids are pretty special.”

Maggie McDermott agrees that raising her 13-year-old grandson, Devin, keeps her involved and focused.

Her second-oldest daughter had Devin when she was just 17. She was not ready for the responsibility and contemplated giving him up.

“We just couldn’t let him go to someone else,” Maggie says.  “So my husband and I said we could raise one more. We had had four girls, so having a boy was really different – he climbed on counters! But it was fine. Everyone helped.”

Since her husband, Tim, died almost five years ago, she and Devin are closer than ever.

“He’s there for me and I’m there for him,” she says. “He keeps me motivated and I have a forward look. He’s a great kid, he’s great to have around and I just want him to turn out to be a good adult. It’s going by so quick!”

* Some names in this story have been changed or withheld where sensitive family relationships or pending legal issues are involved.

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Amy Nilson June 15, 2009 09:28
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