I didn't see it coming. One day I was typing away on my laptop, totally in the zone, when I suddenly realized I needed to double my font size in order to read what I'd written. Last November, I prepared the same luscious Thanksgiving dinner I've made for the past 30 years. It took five days to make retribution to my lower back.
"This can't be," I thought to myself. I exercise regularly and vigorously. I eat healthfully. I feel terrific. I feel young. I feel terrifically young, just as vital as I did in my twenties. Apparently, my brain is the only organ that feels this way. A healthy lifestyle notwithstanding, the rest of my body is beginning to show some wear and tear. I am no Madonna or Jane Fonda whose organs and muscles are infinitely more cooperative than mine.
There are things I know I can never do again. Rollercoasters are out of the question. I won't mention how I found that out. Two drinks used to make me effusive and effervescent. Now I just pass out. And raising children from scratch, an undertaking not for the faint of heart of any age, is unfathomable to me. Been there, done that.
Yet, according to the 2000 Census, 2.4 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren in their homes without the children's parents present, and studies suggest those numbers have risen in the recent recession. Every one of those 2.4 million is a hero to me.
The reasons for the upsurge in "Grandfamilies" as they've come to be called, are plentiful. They include child abandonment by the birth parents, mental or physical illness, substance abuse, incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence, poverty, and death. These families cut across all demographics. They are African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian. They are affluent, middle-class, and poor. And they are nearly all surprised by the circumstances they find themselves in at a time in their lives when they had other plans.
Karen Best Wright, a Virginia mother of eight, never expected to add three more babies to her brood when her youngest was only 15. Wright's daughter lived in Texas, where she gave birth to her third child prematurely. At the time, she was already mother to a 2-year-old and a 4-year old.
Due to unexpected circumstances, Wright stepped up to the plate. "I had to rise to the challenge," Wright told me. "I was not going to let my grandchildren get tangled in the foster care system. I love those kids."
Wright was granted custody after six months. Rising to the challenge meant feeding the baby every three hours, even through the night. The baby's heart monitor would go off at all hours of the night, scaring her grandmother half to death.
"It was overwhelming. I was dealing with menopause at the time, having hot flashes and night sweats and mood swings. Raising three very young children is physically beyond what most women my age can handle. I was exhausted all the time."
"Grandparents who raise their grandchildren have twice the stress of average parents," says Linda of Louisville, who prefers to remain anonymous. "I worry about my daughter whose bad decisions made her incapable of caring for her child. And I worry about my grandchildren who are growing up without their mother around. It's a double whammy."
Linda's daughter is a drug addict who has been in and out of rehab several times. Each time she is discharged she feels certain she is equal to the task of parenting her children, so she returns and tries to pick up where she left off. Then she falls off the wagon and disappears for long stretches of time, returning the children to their grandparents' care.
"This is no way to grow up," says Linda.
Grandparents sometimes view the failure of their children as their own failure. When they think of themselves as sub-par parents, they fret that they will shortchange their grandchildren in the same ways. As they parent for the second time, they deal with feelings of inadequacy.
Some grandparents harbor resentment toward the children who foiled their retirement plans. Then they feel guilty for feeling that resentment. Adding to the complexity, they try to deal with these emotions while being exhausted and often isolated.
Wright explained, "When I was parenting for the first time, all my friends were also parenting. We spent time in groups giving each other support. We would take turns babysitting for each other's children so everyone could take a break when they needed one. If I had a doctor's appointment I knew whom to call to watch my kids. That kind of support wasn't available to me when I was raising my grandchildren. My friends were out playing golf."
To find support, Wright created a blog. Ironically, the support she sought came from the people who wrote to her for support.
"There are so many grandparents with stories similar to mine," she noted. "I receive emails from all over the country from people who need someone to listen to their stories. There are many difficult situations out there. Many grandparents want to file for custody, but don't know their rights and can't afford lawyers. There are issues of health, work, housing, education, and finances. I've heard it all."
Despite the hardship involved in late-in-life parenting, grandparents I interviewed said if given the choice they would do it again in a heartbeat. As Linda noted, "My grandchildren have given me the greatest joy in my life. The experience has been stressful, but so worth the stress."
Wright raised her grandchildren for seven years. She said giving them back broke her heart. Today, her daughter is able to take the reins, and the children are happily residing with their mom. Wright is happy to play the grandma role, spoiling them and being lenient, where before she had to be a disciplinarian and adhere to rules.
Thankfully, since Wright began her blog, many organizations have been founded to provide support to grandparents raising their grandchildren.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers these tips for grandparents undertaking this responsibility:
- Maintain a routine in the home. These children need predictability in their lives.
- Make room for their things. You want them to feel your home is "home."
- Work with them on their communication skills. Try your best to keep them talking about their feelings.
- Use positive discipline that emphasizes reward for good behavior instead of punishment.
- Set rules and consistently enforce them.
Other suggestions include taking a parenting class, participating in a support group, figuring out ways to take breaks, and learning to say "no."
For more information, see the AARP's "Grandfacts: State Fact Sheets for Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children"; the online support group grandparenting.org and The National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
I salute all my middle-aged compatriots who take on this responsibility. You are the ones who have earned the word "grand."
This post has been modified since its original publication.