Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
An estimated 2.7 million grandparents are the primary caregivers of their grandchildren.
Love them, spoil them and then send them home to their parents. That’s the desired role for many of the 70 million grandparents in America. In our culture, grandparenting is viewed as a time to enjoy all the pleasures of having children without all the tensions, sleepless nights and responsibilities associated with child rearing. Although a majority of grandparents envision an indulgent, fun relationship with their grandchildren, an increasing number of grandparents are being asked to forego that role and assume the task of full-time parenting of their grandchildren. According to the 2010 U.S Census Bureau, it is estimated that 2.7 million grandparents are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren. 60% of these grandparents are still in the workforce and 21% have incomes that fall below the poverty lines. Oklahoma is among the top ten states in numbers of grandparents in the parenting role.
The reasons grandparents are asked to take over as parents are varied, but the most common one is substance abuse. The rapid growth of methamphetamines and opioid addiction are escalating sources of child neglect and abuse. Other reasons contributing to the rise of the older generation assuming responsibility for the children are incarceration, mental health issues, military deployment and more rarely, the death of the children’s parents.
Relinquishing the role of grandparents to become parents again is complicated emotional territory. According to one anonymous grandparent, “You grieve because it hasn’t turned out like you thought it would. I thought I would be having fun with my grandkids, but instead I’m forced to play the parenting role with them.” Disappointment, anger and guilt concerning the adult child are also very common. The grandparents often feel sad and even angry that their adult children have created a situation where they are unable or unwilling to take on the task of parenting their own children. According to another grandmother whose daughter was heavily involved in drug manufacturing and use, “I had to put the safety of my grandchildren first and give up on my daughter. It took me years to forgive her for what she did to all of us.” Some grandparents feel guilty about their role in creating their adult child’s problems, often questioning where they went wrong in raising their own child. There is also resentment. Grandparents may feel robbed of a time in their lives when they thought they would be enjoying their “golden years,” traveling, socializing and enjoying their own hobbies. While friends are golfing and going on cruises, the grandparents raising grandchildren are thrust back into the world of diapers, Little League and homework.
Physical fatigue is also a common problem for grandparents raising grandchildren. Because the age range of grandparents ranges from late thirties and upward, the level of this problem will vary according to age and health of the grandparent. Since many are still in the workforce, they must find a way to deal with working and raising children while also dealing with the physical effects of aging. Sleepless nights are difficult enough when you’re in your twenties or thirties, but in your sixties and seventies, walking the floor at night with an infant is even more physically demanding.
Adding to the normal child-raising issues is the fact that many of the children come to grandparents having been neglected, physical, sexually and/or emotionally abused. Children coming from a difficult situation need extra time, attention and often professional counseling. One grandmother shared her experience of having gone from being a single woman living alone one day to having three young grandchildren living with her the next day. Her grandchildren had never slept in real beds; they had slept in cars, on couches and floors. They had never eaten a meal at a table or used utensils. Time, energy, patience and professional counseling were required to teach her young grandchildren basic skills of daily living and help them adapt to a “normal” living situation. As a single woman, she had to meet the physical demands of working full time and providing sole responsibility and care for three young children.
The legal rights of grandparents vary from state to state, and each family and situation is unique, so it’s best to consult with a family law attorney. However there are some basic legal issues grandparents will encounter. To be able to enroll the children in school, obtain medical care, mental health care or apply for financial assistance, the grandparents will need to have the children’s birth certificates and social security numbers. Verbal agreement with the adult child is not enough. Grandparents must have formal legal arrangements; legal custody, legal guardianship or adoption, to protect themselves and the grandchildren they are raising.
All but the wealthiest families face financial hardships associated with raising grandchildren. By the time the grandchildren actually are in their care, funds have often been used to try to assist the adult child. Legal services are expensive but a necessity when attempting to gain guardianship, custody or to adopt the children. Many grandchildren come with special needs that incur additional medical and mental health expenses. Add these expenses to the normal costs of raising children and it is evident that there will almost always be financial stress associated with raising grandchildren.
This may not be the desired role for grandparents, but it’s often a necessary undertaking. Thank goodness there are grandparents willing to step in and provide safety and security for their grandchildren. They make all the difference in their grandchildren’s lives!