When you’re a parent…again
Your child can no longer care for her child, so you’ve stepped up and stepped back into the role of parent
Raising your grandchildren surely isn’t easy, but take comfort. You’re not alone.
“Grandfamilies,” where seniors are the primary caregivers for their kids’ kids, have become increasingly common.
These days, about 2.7 million grandparents across the country are filling the shoes of parents, and the latest report from the US Census Bureau finds that six percent of children live in households headed by grandparents. That’s double the number from 45 years ago.
Here in the Granite State, there are more than 10,000 children currently living in grandparent households, according to Lorraine Bartlett, the director for the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth & Families, and the statewide heroin/opioid epidemic is exacerbating the situation.
Tammy Boucher agrees. She is the program manager for permanency solutions and the foster care program with the non-profit Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, which receives referrals from DCYF.
“The majority of scenarios in which we are seeing grandparents take care of their grandchildren is drug- and alcohol-related. There is a small percentage in which the child is removed from the parent because of abuse or neglect, a mental health issue, or the loss of a job, and that’s why a grandparent will step up. But the majority of the time it is related to substance abuse,” she says. “We see an enormous increase because of the effects of substance abuse. It is reaching out its fingers, not only to the person who is addicted, but to anyone and everyone who is closely tied to them. It’s huge, huge, huge, and it’s really sad.”
Another sorrowful situation is when children lose their parents as a result of a tragic accident or an illness.
No matter the reason, nor how deeply the grandchild is loved, grandparents who become parents are exhausted, overburdened, overwhelmed, mystified by the legal issues and absolutely terrified by all of the emotional ramifications.
“All of sudden they have to find the ways to help their grandchildren manage their grief at the same time they are trying to manage their own when a death like that, or from substance abuse, happens. They need to have a lot of supportive resources, particularly friends and other family members,” says Bartlett.
Open hearts aren’t enough. Grandparents soon find that they need open wallets as well. They must provide for the children immediately and suddenly find themselves having to navigate through the system when it comes to the particularly challenging issues of housing, education, health care, financial matters and the all-important legal status. Without legal guardianship, a grandparent cannot enroll the child in school or authorize medical care for him, and those needing financial assistance must acquire that status before participating in government programs like food stamps, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Medicaid.
Retirement funds and savings accounts can evaporate quickly, to say nothing of leisure time in what were supposed to be the golden years. That often leads to feelings of resentment and then guilt.
The grandchildren have a full plate of emotional issues as well. Experts agree that while every child in this situation is traumatized, each deals with the confusion, separation anxiety, sense of loss, fear about the future and having to adjust to an entirely new home and family in different ways.
Family dynamics, especially when grandparents have to prove in a court of law that their children are unfit parents, are adversely affected.
“With most kids, if you say we’re going to grammy and grandpas, it’s like ‘woo-hoo, we’re on vacation’ because grandparents are fun, and they’re supposed to be,” says Boucher. “But when things happen that drastically change from grandma and grandpa being fun and carefree to now they are acting like a mom and dad, and that alone can be a huge adjustment for the kids.
“The harsh reality is this is not like a Disney movie, or the fairy tale ‘over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house we go’ situation,” she adds.
In instances where the grandparents are still working and can’t be stay-at-home parents, when they are confronting their own health and aging issues, and/or when the grandchild has special needs, things become even more problematic.
Says Bartlett, “It’s all very complex and very challenging. It’s very tough for everybody involved. They have the best of intentions, but sometimes these grandparents also find themselves in the position where they can no longer do it. They need to know where they can go for help.” Fortunately, there is help available through DCYF, which has an extensive resource guide, and through many other agencies across the state.
“For many of our grandparents, it’s really persistence, determination and courage that keep them going. They have to be persistent about why they want to do it and determined to do it, and they need to be courageous about confronting their own children about why they are doing what they are doing,” Bartlett says.
Despite all of the trials and tribulations, there can also be tremendous joy and tons of affection in homes headed by grandparents. Love can be lovelier the second time around.
“Children who are raised by their grandparent get a sense of ‘this is what my parents were like, this is who I am, and this is where I come from,’ and they don’t just have the negative feelings. That’s what continues to drive us,” says Boucher.
“There are the joys and delights that come with all of this. Are you raising your grandson who’s on a football team and you get to go to all of those games and see him play and what a success he could be?” Bartlett asks.
Shea McClellan’s grandparents know the answer. They legally adopted him when he was 18 months old and he grew up to be the NFL Chicago Bears’ first-round draft pick in 2012 and is a starting linebacker on the team.
Others who were well-loved and well-raised by their grandparents include Academy-Award winning actor and singer Jamie Foxx, country music star Kelli Pickler, two-time Olympic gold medalist Felix Sanchez, and McDonald’s CEO and President Don Thompson.
One kid who grew up in a grandfamily even became the most powerful person in the world.
“She poured everything she had in to me,” Barack Obama always says about Madelyn “Toot” Dunham, the adored maternal grandmother who helped raise the future President of the United States.