By Judith Hence
Raising our free-spirited children is serious work, but we know that one day they will be the parents and we will have the freedom. Well…almost. Many grandparents and other relatives are becoming parents again — me included.
The big picture is that, as of 2010, upwards of 4.9 million children under age 18 live in grandparent-headed households, and 24 percent of that number is African American. It is painful to see how children in the United States are worse off than in other industrialized nations in terms of child poverty, teen birth rates and violence, yet we enjoy excellent recreational facilities and have a strong commitment to the arts.
If you are a fellow caregiver, we are in a lot of good company, yet we feel isolated. We stretch the budget, find sitters, help with homework, and attend parent-teacher meetings and school events. (By the way, want to really feel isolated? Look around the next time you’re at one of those special school events.)
When a friend talks about getting away for the weekend, I confess to a twinge of jealousy and wonder when I will have that luxury again. Shortly after my grandson David arrived, I was nervous about raising a boy. There were so many questions: from getting haircuts to instilling values that would ensure he respects himself and others. I found support systems, ideas and resources I’d like to share with other grandparents like me who find themselves parenting again.
Dr. Priscilla Gibson, University of Minnesota, specializes in kinship care. She believes we could be in a better position to help grandchildren if we would help the caregiver: “Taking care of the caregiver is taking care of the child.” Now, think about how the physical and psychological effects of re-parenting can impact a caregiver’s health and — ultimately — the child under that person’s care.
But even with these challenges, grandfamilies are making a go of their new lifestyle. Take Vicky, for example.
Vicky (not her real name) is a self-employed writer, editor and grandmother of two grandsons. About three years ago, Vicky’s youngest grandson, Dillon, came to live with her and Bill, the man in her life, when her daughter, Carol (not her real name), moved to Arizona to accommodate a chronic illness.
Carol was not happy with the Arizona school system and sent Dillon back to Minnesota to live with his grandmother. Vicky and Bill were happy to help; they’d missed Dillon. Vicky knew she was doing the right thing, but there was that loss of privacy, the additional responsibilities, and the reality of taking on a full commitment to do it right.
“There have been times when I felt selfish, then felt guilty about wanting to be selfish, not wanting to be the caregiver,” said Vicky. “I’m a caregiver for others in my family; this was just one more thing I needed to do. I really wanted to do it, but I felt guilty about feeling selfish.”
Dillon is now 17 and will soon be graduating from high school. Carol and her older son have since returned to Minnesota. Dillon continues to live with Vicky, and she has no regrets because she “did the right thing.”
Then there’s Cheryl’s story: Cheryl works full time at a major health maintenance organization during the day and at night studies for a bachelor’s degree in Christian ministries. Most of Cheryl’s grandchildren have lived with her off and on, but Anthony (the fourth of five grandchildren) has lived with Cheryl and husband Vincent for five years.
Cheryl believed Anthony would have a better education and a more culturally diverse life here than in the rough Chicago neighborhood where he grew up. But Anthony brought some of those issues with him. Every time Anthony’s school phone number popped up on Cheryl’s phone at work, she had “heart palpitations.” She was tired and frustrated and started responding with: “Yes, what is it now?”
Some school officials still stereotype Anthony as that kid from Chicago with problems. He has nightmares about life in Chicago and refuses to go back. But Cheryl is seeing a difference: “He’s done a complete 360 since he came here.” Her advice to other grandfamilies: “Whatever you do, do it with lots of love.”
Flight attendants warn that if the air masks drop, take care of yourself first and then help others. The same goes for life as a caregiver: If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?
While in grad school and working full time, I caught a virus. Papers due, exam pending, house to clean, and there I was flat on my back with only enough energy to feel panic. What happens to David if something happens to me? What if I’m hospitalized? Family helped for a few hours, but what if they hadn’t been there?
Conclusion: self-care is not self-ish. Here are some “Take-Aways” I’ve learned that may be helpful to others in grandfamilies like mine:
1. Say “no” if you are overextended, and stop feeling guilty. (Okay, I am still working on the guilt part.)
2. Exercise. (I’m still working on that one, too.)
3. Find your “quiet place”: park, coffee shop, garden, back porch, even the bathroom.
4. Find a support group where you and your grandchild can relax and have fun together and with others by contacting the Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association or Lutheran Social Services’ grandparents support group.
A helpful read: The Grandparent’s and Other Relative Caregiver’s Guide to Child Care and Early Childhood Education Programs (Children’s Defense Fund, www.childrensdefense.org).
Hang in there and tell me what you think.
Judith Hence welcomes reader responses to email@example.com. Her column on grandfamilies, “Second Time Around: Finding Some Answers,” will appear monthly in the MSR.