With the abrupt entry of our granddaughter Nicole into our household in 2004, my wife, Cinelli, and I became part of the 4.5 million grandparents in America who are, according to Census Bureau statistics, raising their grandchildren. We were transformed into what the AARP calls a "grandfamily" — grandparents who become surrogate parents for an assortment of reasons, ranging from drug addiction to death.
She was expected to clean her room, stay in on school nights, do her homework, be home by midnight on weekend nights and not aimlessly hang out at the malls. But Nicole regarded rules as suggestions that she generally chose not to accept and the need to cooperate as an emotional impossibility. Her inability to function within the realm of a nuclear family seemed absolute.
Her flouting of just about all of the rules at one time or another, including crawling out of her bedroom window on school nights to join her friends, created a schism with her father — our son — that came to involve the police, the courts and a foster home.
At age 15, Nicole decided to run away and seek shelter in our house. Her desperation was so great that, though we were vacationing, she crawled in through the doggie door. Her father caught up with her and tried to drag her into the car to bring her home. She broke loose, ran to a friend's house and called the police. No charges were brought in the incident, but Nicole ended up in a foster home for the few weeks it took to untangle the situation.
It was, as she was to recall later, "a sad and difficult time in my life."
Cinelli and I were traveling abroad when all of this was going on, and we came home to a family in disarray. I declared with characteristic bombast that no granddaughter of mine was going to live in a foster home — she would live with us. So we began the process of assuming responsibility for her through a social worker assigned to her case. We filled out endless forms, had our house and background inspected and went to Children's Court to make it happen. By a judge's declaration, Nicole became our ward, and we were a grandfamily, ready or not.
Although it seemed unique to us during the time we cared for Nicole, we eventually came to learn otherwise. In 1970, slightly more than 2 million children under the age of 18 were being raised full time by grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; today the number has grown to almost 5 million. In the city of Los Angeles, 36% of all grandparents are raising their grandchildren, according to the Census Bureau.
There are a multiplicity of reasons.
Lillian Carson, a nationally known specialist on grandparenting, says that the increased use of illegal drugs is a primary reason children are being raised by their grandparents (although grandparents sometimes become parents again for other reasons as well — an adult child attending school, for example, or leaving for military duty). A psychotherapist, she is also a social worker, author and contributing editor of Grand Magazine, a weekly online periodical especially for grandparents; she has six grandchildren of her own.
The use of drugs, she says, creates conditions under which parents are unable to care for their children. Burdened by addiction, they end up divorced, in prison, physically or mentally impaired or dead. Increasingly, the kids end up with Grandma and Grandpa.
In my family, our grandchild was in revolt against authority in general and her parents in particular. Nicole transferred some of the rebellious attitude toward us. When I asked Dr. Deborah Whitley, director of the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Georgia State University, how grandparents should deal with this, she came back with one word, "Patience."
She added: "Understand that the grandchildren require an adjustment period to their modified family environment. This doesn't mean that you allow the grandchildren to overtake your household. As a grandparent, you have parental responsibility. But there may be situations where you introduce household rules gradually, determine when flexibility of rules is warranted and determine ways to build trust and stability."
Keeping the peace
When Nicole came to live with us, we found ourselves involved in a delicate balancing act: We had to respect the wishes of her parents while accepting the very personal task of raising their daughter.
Carson suggests that grandparents follow the rules of the parents as closely as possible to maintain harmony in the larger family. "If you can work with the parent and bring the parent into the parenting process, the child will benefit," she says. "It becomes a process of sharing and lessens the child's sense of loss."
The split between Nicole and my son and daughter-in-law seemed to involve a clash of cultures. But we never denigrated or mocked the rules that had created the tension. And we never forgot that they were the parents and always believed that at some point the family would be reunited. We hoped to find some common ground.
Among the major schisms: Nicole's desire to be with friends on school nights. Her father was adamant in saying no, but going head-on with her was madness, so we tried a different approach.