Grandparents having to step in to raise their grandchildren is an issue that has become a sweeping epidemic. Caught in a tsunami of parents who are alcoholics, drug addicted, violent, incarcerated, too young, too irresponsible, to ill, abusive, crushed by the recession, made homeless, or just plain overwhelmed, are millions of children at risk. Children in need of parenting. Grandparents are rescuing grandchildren in droves.
I should begin by telling you my story. Here, in excerpts from my book, Raising Our Children's Children, is a bedtime story I told to my 3-year-old adopted granddaughter:
"Once upon a time, your birth mommy had a baby growing in her tummy (because that's where babies grow before they're born, in their birth mommy's tummy). And she said to me, 'You know, I really love this baby, but even though I can do some things really well, like write stories and sing songs, I just don't know how to take care of a baby.' So I said, 'Guess what! I really love this baby too, and I do know how to take care of a baby, so when this baby is born, she can be mine!' And your birth mommy said, 'That's a good idea!' My granddaughter beamed when I told her that story. She became so still and intent, her green eyes grew larger and larger; I knew I was on to something."
But I guess I've gotten ahead of myself, the very beginning was a call in the night, one of those dreaded calls parents of teenagers never want to get. "Mom, I'm pregnant." A desperate call -- more like a plea -- from my daughter, away at college. She had been on birth control pills, but after a long bout with bronchitis had been put on a strong antibiotic. Doctors neglected to tell her, and I had never heard, that antibiotics can often interfere with birth control pill's effectiveness. She ignored every sign, had gone into deep, deep denial. Now, she was almost five months along. Too much to ignore. Too late for intervention.
"We had three children: a nineteen-year-old daughter and a sophomore in college, a sixteen-year-old daughter, and a little boy- our surprise package - three years old. Now, this phone call had brought me more than just another surprise, a mere bump in the road; this was a dizzying shock - the kind that spins you around until you are facing in a totally different direction, forever altered, and the very next step you take is a journey into foreign territories, unfamiliar landscapes."
That was just the beginning of my journey. Eventually I became deeply involved in the issue of grandparents as parents. I worked with the Massachusetts Department of Elder Affairs initiating the development of a guidebook for grandparents. I participate in, and later founded and ran, a support group and interviewed dozens of grandparents, subsequently writing Raising Our Children's Children.
Want statistics? I can give you numbers, census figures and breakdowns -- data. When I see numbers my eyeballs spin. So let me just tell you this: close to 3 million grandparents are raising over 5 million grandchildren. They are doing it mostly on fixed incomes, with little or no financial help or resources for grandchildren who are often damaged physically, emotionally and psychologically.
How did this happen? "How did this happen" is a refrain often expressed in my book. In it, are stories -- sometimes life and death battles -- of grandparents navigating a chaos of challenges consuming their lives as they step into the breach. Sometimes those stories answer the question, "How did this happen?", sometimes we are left still wondering. The stories are gut-wrenching, sad, tragic, touching and all too common. They are also stories of redemption, healing and hope -- family stories. Because, after all, this is a family issue, not strictly a "grandparent" issue.
"Grandparents raising their grandchildren, contrary to what most people believe, is not only an urban problem, a minority problem or a problem restricted to the poor. This is an exploding sociological trend with far reaching implications for our future. It spans every segment of society -- rich and poor, black and white, Asian and Hispanic, urban and suburban."
In other words, "there but for the grace of God..." go any of us.
When I first wrote the book in the mid '90s, my granddaughter was little. The issue was just beginning to surface, although the numbers were already enormous. There was no help for grandparents back then. Now, I hear the very same stories from a new generation of grandparents, and guess what? There is still little or no help available, and the numbers are even more startling.
We are long past due for some awareness raising. Raising awareness is a phrase I'm all too familiar with as a breast cancer survivor. I'm sick to death of hearing it. I hope not one more donation dollar to that cause is wasted on "raising awareness"; who isn't aware of breast cancer these days for God's sake! But, grandparents raising grandchildren, that's another story -- they need some attention, some acknowledgement, some gratitude, and yes, definitely, by all means, let's "Raise Awareness!"
I am currently revising my book for a second edition coming out in the not too distant future. The issue has spread across the globe -- the UK, Canada, Australia -- the places may be different, but the stories are the same. I'm here to help.