At 46 years of age with a grown son of his own, Glen Allison thought the parenting part of his life was over.
But when his niece and her boyfriend fell prey to drug addiction, it fell on Allison and his wife to raise their 19-month-old grand-nephew.
“It’s easy to cast a blanket over who’s the bad guy, but it’s not that simple,” he said. “They wanted to care for him, but they were unable to. So we were faced with the difficult decision of taking care of a kid potentially 18 years down the road.”
Like most in such an unconventional situation, Allison and his wife felt very alone, but the monumental task of raising a child from the grandparent-type role is becoming more and more common. Bringing up a child is no easy feat in the first place, but doing so a generation removed presents a whole new set of challenges.
“We tried to make sure he spent more time outdoors than in front of a television or computer screen. We had to decide beforehand what we were going to say ‘no’ to and stick to it,” Allison said. “And when he reached school age, my wife and I found we had some catching up to do in his subjects, and also with all the technology out there now.”
A regional supervisor for the Department of Human Services who asked not to be identified pointed to drug addiction and incarceration as common reasons grandparents end up raising grandchildren.
“Economically, people in this situation are all over the map,” she said. “But the parent is usually very young and many times drugs are the issue.”
Hard statistical data on grandparents as caregivers has been difficult to come by in the past because arrangements are often made among the family, leaving DHS out of the loop.
“But now schools are more strict on legal guardianship, which grandparents must have to check them out of school, bring them medicine, etc.,” she said. “We get lots of calls from grandparents who say they’ve had their grandchildren for five or six years, now they need medical assistance.”
Families are sometimes reluctant to involve DHS because they do not want to offend the parents of the grandchildren. Grandparents’ biggest fear, she said, is their grandchildren being taken away from them. This fear keeps them from taking advantage of the DHS system until they have no choice. For many, providing for a grandchild in addition to their own medications and living expenses can be overwhelming.
“The average person would be astounded to know how many grandparent-aged people struggle to pay for food. Some will flat-out tell you they can’t care for their kids because they don’t have enough income to support themselves,” she said. “Especially if the grandparents themselves were young parents, they could still be caring for their own mother or father as well.”
Doris Renshaw of Tupelo, a graduate of the Parents for Public Schools’ Parent Leadership Institute, has worked in the field of child care and development her whole life. She herself is a grandparent who helped raise her grandchild, and said, finances aside, the day-to-day life of navigating the school system and meeting their grandchild’s needs is a challenge in itself for grandparents.
Most obvious, perhaps, is the school’s use of the Internet to post grades, homework assignments, etc., but in addition to the curriculum becoming more rigorous, the language of assignments is more complicated in order to emulate the wording used on standardized tests.
“For someone who grew up in a world without computers, and has never had to use one, it can be a very complicated system to navigate,” Renshaw said. “When younger people try to show them, they go so fast a grandparent can’t keep up.”
She noted some grandparents may not have a computer or even transportation.
“So they can use the library,” Renshaw said. “But what if they still work, as lots of them do, and can’t get to the library before it closes?”
In addition, Renshaw said grandparents can face health issues that make driving difficult, especially at night. Even preparing food can become a task.
No guilt trips
Amory High School English teacher Debbie Beddingfield took responsibility of her grandchildren in 2012, when her 25-year-old son left to find more stable work on the West Coast.
As a career teacher, Beddingfield has made observations that may speak to the growing trend of grandparents raising grandchildren. Our fast-paced, instant culture has a way of overloading today’s youth.
“So many more factors and opportunity and stimuli exist for my son’s generation. Lots of times I think kids try to find something they are instantly the best at, a perfect fit,” she said. “When it turns out not to be easy, they move on to the next thing instead of working at what they had. It’s the same thing with relationships. They fall in love and get married and have babies thinking, ‘oh, they’ll be fun.’”
Grandparents are sometimes left struggling with where they went wrong with their own children, but Beddingfield said guilt trips are only a waste of valuable energy. In her 50s, she found herself doing things again that were difficult in her 30s, and each day, small moments encapsulate profound grace alongside profound pain.
“If 20 years ago you asked me if I was going to be watching ‘Dora the Explorer’ and ‘Team Umi Zumi’ at this age... You have to laugh. And in private, you cry,” she said. “You just have to get up and do it one day at a time. I think that every day when I wake up and put my feet on the floor, usually with two little tow heads in bed with me.”