“No one expects to spend their retirement raising a child,” said Barb, a former teacher. “It changes everything. Your life is turned upside down.” But she’s not complaining. Sure, she can’t travel as much as she’d hoped to, and she has no social life; all activities revolve around Avery, now 8, and the other kids’ mothers aren’t really friend material for Barb. But she gets great joy from being with her granddaughter. “I really think of her as my third child,” she told me. This time around, though, “I have learned not to sweat the small stuff,” she said. She doesn’t stress out about Avery’s test scores, or about the “little-girl drama” of third-grade cliques. Instead, she focuses on giving Avery love, stability, and the skills to fight her own battles.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 3 percent of children nationwide live apart from their parents, and of those, nearly two-thirds are being raised by grandparents. Some 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, either because of a temporary change in circumstance for the parents, such as military deployment or joblessness, or something more lasting and terrible: mental illness, divorce, incarceration, death, or, as in Barb and Fran’s case, substance abuse.
Still, there are unexpected rewards. Some grandparents say they feel younger because of being involved again in the day-to-day lives of children, running to after-school activities, or reading Harry Potter and teen magazines to keep current. They also have a renewed sense of purpose, at just the time of life when their age-mates report feeling less and less necessary. The kids can benefit, too; according to some studies, children raised by their grandparents have fewer behavioral problems than those who end up in foster care with non-relatives, though perhaps there was something that set apart those kids and families in the first place.
Becoming a licensed foster parent might not even be an option for everyone, Beltran said, since to be eligible for licensing, the grandchild must have come to the grandparent’s home by way of a child-welfare agency. But many grandchildren arrive the way Barb’s did—late at night, without much prior warning, dropped off by a parent who eventually leaves.