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Heroes Among Us

Custodial grandparents are saving their grandkids from the mistakes of the parents

I’ve always thought of heroes as people who jeopardize their own lives to save others, like the firefighters of 9/11. They are the ones we read about in the newspapers who are honored with purple hearts, citations and awards. But many other heroes are right here among us, performing amazing feats that go largely unnoticed. I am referring to grandparents who have taken on the task of raising their children’s children.

The parents are unable or unwilling to raise their kids, and so these grandparents do it because it’s the right thing to do, and because if they didn’t, their grandchildren would probably end up in an already burdened foster care system. Even so, most of these grandparents hadn’t imagined they’d be taking another trip down the road of parenthood.

They had been looking forward to a new chapter in their lives, an opportunity to do things they couldn’t do while the responsibility of raising their own children took precedence over everything else. Maybe they would take college classes, write that novel that was waiting to be born or do a stint in the Peace Corps. The possibilities were endless.

But even the best-laid plans can go horribly awry. When parents gaze with adoration at that helpless newborn in their arms, they are not anticipating a future with a raging addict or an incoherent alcoholic. They are not steeling themselves for the possibility of their child’s mental illness, gang affiliation, imprisonment or early death, yet sadly this has been the case for many of these grandparents.

When troubled adult children reproduce even though their own turbulent lifestyles render them as needy as their newborns, grandparents often step in to fill the gap. Sometimes they are able to take on a supporting role until their adult children get it together and rise to the task of parenting their own children, but when it doesn’t work out that way, grandparents are forced to take on the parenting role once again.

For these custodial grandparents it’s helpful to have a safe haven where they can connect with others in the same situation. In my area there is an organization called GAP (Grandparents As Parents) [https://www.grandparentsasparents.org/], which is a lifeline and a place where laughter, tears, anger and joy are passed around as freely as outgrown toys, clothing and excess fruit from the grandparents’ trees.

The grandparents range from relatively young to not-so-young. Some of them are prosperous, and some of them are financially challenged. Various ethnic groups are represented, but they all share the common thread of custodial grandparenting. And they support each other in any way they can.

Today I’m in a neighborhood park, sitting on a folding chair in a circle of grandparents who meet weekly. The group facilitator saw a need years ago and started this GAP group. Her own parents had raised her nephew when her sister died, so she knows firsthand the unique challenges of these “recycled” parents. To look at them, you would never guess the challenges they face.

The kids are on summer vacation, so many of them have accompanied their grandparents to the meeting. They range in age from babies to teenagers. To the bystanders at the park, these people probably appear to be doting grandparents enjoying a day outdoors with their grandchildren, and they are. The difference is that this isn’t just a one-day outing. This is their life every day. They don’t get to spoil the grandchildren and return them to parents who will deal with the fallout of too many cookies and too little discipline. These ARE the parents. The majority of them have either already adopted their grandchildren or are in the process of fighting for custody.

Every day these grandparents must summon their inner strength to deal with legal documents, vaccinations, registering the grandchildren in school and fighting their own children while trying to salvage some part of the relationship-and all the while keeping up with children who have no lack of energy and stamina.

I understand the challenges these grandparents face, because I share some of them myself. I spend a lot of time caring for my 7-year-old grandson, Caleb*. His mother was a teenager when he was born, and she wasn’t ready for the responsibility of a small child. She has since added a toddler to the mix. My daughter still has difficulties with her parenting role, but at least she goes to work every day and is not an addict or a homeless vagrant. The stories I’m hearing today make me realize I am one of the fortunate ones.

There is Kathy, whose adult addict son lives with her, her husband and their two grandchildren. He screams and threatens her, but since he is now off probation, his behavior is not being closely monitored; Kathy, a strong, regal woman, takes the abuse so her frail, elderly husband is spared.

In so many cases grandparents are being held hostage by their adult children who are strung out on drugs and angry at their parents for taking their children even though they are not able to care for them themselves. Kathy lies in bed at night praying that her abusive son will get arrested again, so that peace will once again reign in her household.

Tina shows me a birthday card her son made in prison for her 8-year-old grandson. It has been creatively illustrated by one of the many prison artists, and her son has neatly printed a message to his son advising him to do well in school. This man had been an honor student with a high IQ until drug addiction took over his life. Tina has told her grandson his father is in prison for drugs, but she has left out the fact that he murdered his pregnant girlfriend.

Sascha and Paul are at the park with their 16-month-old granddaughter. They have had her since she was a newborn, but when she was 6 months old, she was taken into foster care because of something their daughter did. Sascha tells me they went through hell to get her back four months ago. They are now in the process of adopting, and their daughter’s parental rights will be terminated.

Even before Sascha tells me the story, I have noted that Paul walks around holding his granddaughter protectively and hovers over her every move. Sascha was laid up with an injury until recently, and Paul had to do everything for both of them. As a result, the baby refers to him as “Mama.” Now I can see why Paul is reluctant to release this baby even for an instant.

In this circle of warriors no one complains about the role they find themselves in. Yes, they exhibit weariness, grief and resignation, but also strength, determination, tenacity and resolve. It is clear that they are committed to giving their all to see their grandchildren flourish and take a different path from that of their birth parents. They are heroes.



Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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