It’s amazing what you don’t realize is going on in your own family, because we had no clue,” recalls 57-year-old Richardson resident Kaye Surley of the stunning phone call that snatched grandparenting from her life two years ago. “We were oblivious. We were just happy to have Kyleigh every weekend.”
But the call that broke into the energetic accountant’s work day meant that her happy weekends with her 66-year-old retired husband Ron and their 5-year-old granddaughter weren’t destined to last. “[Child Protective Services] called me and said, ‘We’ve had reports.’ And you could have just knocked me over with a feather,” recalls Kaye. Hardships in Kyleigh’s home — once thought to be well in hand — had spiraled out of control. “They asked us if we would pick her up and we were like of course we will, without even a blink.”
Overnight Kaye found herself transformed from grandma to full-time parent. It was like starting all over again — at an age when most are retiring.
The Surleys have joined millions of Americans reaching across a so-called skipped generation of parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their children themselves.
One in 10 American children today lives with a grandparent. Of those approximately 7.7 million children, census figures show that grandparents are the primary caregivers for 3 million, including more than a quarter of a million children in Texas.
Those numbers spiraled upward after the 2007 recession and have stabilized since the official end of the recession in 2009, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
Beyond the pinch of economic conditions lurk circumstances that are almost never happy: chronic illness or death, military deployment, mental illness, parental addiction and incarceration.
“If they’re raising a grandchild, it’s not for a good reason,” informs Amy Goyer, AARP’s family and caregiving expert. “There’s some chronic problem or crisis in the family and the grandparents often are dealing with an adult child who has some issues.”
The Surleys had each raised two children to adulthood by the time they met and married. While Kaye characterizes Kyleigh’s parents’ relationship as “oil and water” replete with “bad choices” and Kyleigh’s mother absent more often than not, Kyleigh’s father (Ron’s adopted son) appeared to be holding things together. The CPS call to the contrary — reports of an empty pantry, utilities shut off, shoes that didn’t fit — left them in complete shock but determined to help pick up the pieces.
For grandparents to effectively take on the primary care of a grandchild, they must first establish themselves on solid legal ground. That may be simpler for grandparents named by CPS as kinship caregivers, but even in families like the Surleys, where the parents seem happy to let the grandparents take the child off their hands, it’s not enough to simply say, “I’m this child’s grandparent.” Taking a grandchild to school or the doctor proves impossible unless a grandparent can produce the documents required.
“Getting this to work out in your favor legally is going to cost you a minimum of $30,000,” says Dr. Bert Hayslip, regent’s professor of psychology at the University of North Texas and a long-time researcher in grandfamily dynamics. In CPS cases, parents are entitled to have an attorney appointed by the court. Grandparents receive no such luxury, states Dallas family attorney Marilynn Landon, although she notes that the district attorney and guardian ad litem (the representative for the child’s interests) often lend a certain amount of assistance to grandparents seeking custody.
The first line of defense for grandparents, says Gail Gallagher, local author of Grandparents Winning Custody of Grandchildren who is raising two grandchildren of her own, is a grandparent-friendly attorney who’s open to the idea of grandparents as primary caregivers and is willing to help them get the right papers to raise their grandchildren.
Experts emphasize the importance of nailing down legal arrangements even if all the parties seem content and cooperative. “It’s better for the [grandchild] to have that stability by having the grandparent go in and know somebody can’t just come in a year later and snatch the child back,” Landon advises.
Despite the need for court-ordered custody arrangements, the process of going to court is guaranteed to exacerbate strained family relationships. Even though Kyleigh’s father and mother never contested Ron and Kaye’s move to gain joint conservatorship of their granddaughter, Ron says the court process inevitably became confrontational. “It’s a disturbing place to be,” he shares.
Taking a toll
Part of the struggle is money. Grandparents are often well into their fixed-income years. U.S. Census figures from 2010 put the median income for grandparent householders responsible for grandchildren under 18 at $45,000. When a parent of the grandchild is not present, that drops to $33,000. And while many grandparents simply don’t have enough income to meet a growing family’s needs, Hayslip notes that others have too much — too much, that is, to qualify for aid programs that could help stretch a retirement budget meticulously designed for two.
Even when money isn’t an issue, housing can be. Although many grandparents live in homes long since paid off, their homes aren’t always child-friendly. Grandparents who were enjoying downsized living discover it’s time to scale up to gain more bedrooms, a bigger kitchen and a yard in a good school district. For the Surleys, that meant once again taking on a mortgage and turning Ron’s long days on his sailboat into sweaty sessions mowing the lawn.
Mowing the grass under the broiling Texas sun is emblematic of the physical challenges faced by grandparents who find themselves raising a family once again. Lifting a wiggly toddler can strain aging arms and backs, and many grandparents are already coping with chronic health issues. Studies cited in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regional report have shown that children raised by a grandparent go on fewer outings than children raised by other relatives, and grandparents have more trouble attending school activities and taking children to extracurricular activities.
The forced return to a fast-paced albeit restrictive lifestyle can lead to major stress for grandparents. Compounding that is the pressure of trying to help adult children who are still, as Hayslip puts it, “struggling to write their lives.” These grandparents find themselves back in the saddle with not one but two generations.
Ron is open to the possibility that his son will pull through his recent stint in rehab and be able to provide a stable home for Kyleigh someday, but too many failed second chances have relegated that hope to a dream. “It’s not that you’ve abandoned your children, but you have to move on,” Ron says after two years of raising Kyleigh full time.
Steering through self-doubt takes a steady hand. “It’s not a formula,” Kaye says of parenting. “Kids are going to grow up and have a mind of their own. They’re going to make their own decisions, and sometimes those decisions don’t line up with how you raised them.”
Even so, accepting that your best efforts fell short doesn’t come easy. “When you have a son who’s allowed this to happen to his daughter, you feel all this shame,” Ron admits. “You feel like ‘What did I do wrong?’” He pauses, then adds, “I don’t think I could have done something different to change it, because there are too many other people it’s happened to.”
Unlike the Surleys, more than half of grandparents raising grandchildren are forging their way through these challenges alone, without the support of a spouse. Furthermore, stepping back into the child-rearing stage of life frequently isolates them from their friends — no more time for golf, or a leisurely cup of coffee with a neighbor.
Even relationships that successfully bridge the gap feel the strain. Dallas grandmother Carolyn Garland is weathering the transition of raising her 4-year-old grandchild with a boyfriend whose only child has long since been an adult. “His reaction was ‘Whoa, I didn’t sign on for raising kids here,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Hey, neither did I, but … you just do what you need to do.’”
For grandparents like Garland, maintaining perspective requires safeguarding some part of their own identities. “The grandparent goes through a lot of psychological changes because their whole lifestyle changes,” Gallagher notes. She encourages grandparent caregivers to maintain emotional equilibrium by preserving friendships, hobbies and recreational interests wherever possible.
“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and she was trying to grasp the idea that we’re parents again,” Kaye says. “You turn the parent light on again. That switch that you flipped 17 years ago? You turn it back on, and it doesn’t go off until she’s grown.”
The Surleys have found it less difficult to cope with the parenting role they’ve gained than the grandparenting role they’ve lost. Kaye explains, “When you raise your grandchildren, you’re not allowed to be a grandparent anymore; because the beauty of being a grandparent is you bring them into the home, and you spoil ’em rotten, and you love ’em to pieces and you send ’em home.”
Now, she notes, she is the one who sets the rules and takes care of the mundane tasks. “You have to raise them like you would your own children,” she says.
One way Kaye is managing her new role is by collaborating with friend and fellow grandparent caregiver Garland to create Girlfriends Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a nonprofit support group for grandparent caregivers. They hope the group will steer local grandparents through the barrage of issues involved in taking on the primary care of a grandchild.
For a demographic that hasn’t grown up with the Internet, finding out what’s required to raise a grandchild can be a staggering task. Help and advice are frustratingly fragmented between agencies and organizations more typically devoted to providing caregivers for older adults than helping older adults who are caregivers themselves.
The AARP GrandFamilies Guide offers comprehensive resources, pointing grandparents through the maze of legal, medical, financial and social grandfamily needs. At the local level, Surley and Garland hope their group will help fill the gap for grandparents facing new issues such as buying and installing a car seat or figuring out if a child needs immunization boosters.
Every grandfamily’s needs are different. “All these women come from different lives,” Kaye says. “There’s not one of us that our situations are alike. We’re trying to find an avenue for them to go to for strength, for guidance.”
Still, grandparents faced with raising another generation generally know what they’re up against. “You don’t want to undersell the abilities of grandparents to cope,” Hayslip says. “Because a lot of them are quite resilient, and they do very well without our meddling or intervention.”
How are the kids?
Relatively little is known about how children are faring in grandfamily life. “Many do well; some do not,” Hayslip notes. “Especially, younger boys tend to have a harder time. We think it could be the absence of a male role model [since grandparent care is overwhelmingly provided by grandmothers]. It could be difficulties in the relationship with the parents before this happened. Or it could be difficulties that you could be having adjusting to the fact that you’re now being raised by your grandmother. We don’t know which.”
Research has shown that keeping children with family members cements family ties — especially important for children suffering from separation anxiety and attachment disorders following a chaotic early life. These children may have been through physical and sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment.
When Kyleigh first came to live with the Surleys full time, they took her to counseling. The sessions went well thanks in part to the weekends she’d spent with her grandparents in earlier years. She knows her parents love her, the Surleys explain; they simply can’t take care of her.
“Unfortunately, they don’t request to see her,” Kaye explains. “That is heartbreaking for her because she misses them. And it’s hard for her to understand that adults make bad choices. Her parents have put things in front of her, which is why we are where we are today.”
Ron recalls the blank amazement of attorneys and social workers who are accustomed to pressing for parental reunification when he admitted that no, he doesn’t look forward to a time when he can reunite his granddaughter with her parents. “It’s never going to work out,” he laments.
“Many grandparents are quite ambivalent about all of this,” Hayslip confirms. “They are profoundly disappointed in their adult children but realize that it is in the best interest of the grandchild for that person not to be involved.”
Just as parental reunification doesn’t always come about, successful grandfamily stories don’t always look strong and secure from the outside. “I had an email from a 75-year-old woman, and she had to get custody of her granddaughter even though she has MS,” recalls Gallagher. “It’s a beautiful story. Even though she has MS, she was not going to say she couldn’t do this.”
For all the good that grandparents make of their new roles, as Ron puts it, there are no perfect solutions. “How do we make sure grandchildren come out with their heads screwed on right? It’s messy. They [grandchildren] are caught in the crossfire.”