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Suddenly part of a ‘grandfamily’

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We were a comfortable pair of 70-year-olds enjoying a relatively pleasant existence of travel, fine dining and occasional domestic indulgences. We rarely shouted, threatened, condemned or accused one another of unpleasant social behavior. Then the perfect storm of teenage and artistic temperament merged in our home to shred our domestic tranquillity.

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.

Our reasons, thankfully, were not so dramatic. All we had to do was harness Nicole, whose wildly free spirit had collided with the rules her father had laid down.

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.

When confronted with "I won't," we trimmed her small allowance or quietly declined to drive her to the mall where her friends waited. On the other hand, if her homework was done or if she planned on doing it with a friend, she could remain out until 10 p.m.

On weekends, her curfew was midnight. We bought her a cellphone and acquired the phone numbers of just about everyone she knew. When she was late coming home, she'd call. We established a "code of honesty," and she followed it 90% of the time.

There wasn't a lot of difference between our rules and the rules laid down by her parents. It was just that we were the grandparents, the milder older people who had always babied her, and our rules seemed easier to take.

We expected her to have dinner with us. We wanted to know whom she was with and who was driving if a car was involved.

We met her friends and liked most of them.

We tried to apply the rules we used in raising our own kids, all now responsible adults.

"I know my parents would say you should have disciplined me more," she says today, "but that's not true. You did OK, and I'm not just giving you the business."

Despite our good intentions, there were occasional screaming fits of the type that contributed to the break with her parents. Keeping her room in some order seemed to be where she drew the line, and our desire to see her clothes off the floor caused her to erupt in volcanic outbursts far exceeding the level of our expectations. We witnessed firsthand how raising a child with Nicole's volatile temperament could create chaotic situations, with both Cinelli and I doing our share of yelling when all the rules of parenthood/grandparenthood didn't work.

Beyond all of that, suddenly being responsible for the needs of another person was an economic shock. My wife's best guess is that we spent about $50,000 during a four-year period that included two years of her living with us and two years in art school. Start with food, clothing, medical and dental care and add school and art supplies. (Nicole's artistic ability was recognized when she was a first-grader, and despite the chaos in her life, it continued to grow.)

After she graduated from high school, we cosigned loans to put her through the two years she attended the art institutes in Chicago and San Francisco. But even in art school, she was unable to accept instructors "telling" her what to do and eventually dropped out to paint on her own. Our attempts to convince her that learning required instruction were like a trial balloon that floated over her head and downwind. After leaving art school, she continued living with us until she moved into a place of her own.

There's another issue in the rearranging of families that we were not prepared for in the beginning. Grandparents are supposed to "release" their grandparental prerogatives when they take on the parent role—no more "small spoiling," no more secrets between Grandpa and Granddaughter. But experts in grandchild-raising warn that sometimes one grandparent doesn't always adhere to that rule, and that can threaten even long marriages.

Here's the truth of the matter: I tended to forgive Nicole many of her indiscretions, which caused arguments between me and my wife. Cinelli and I agreed on the basics but debated some of the details. Our arguments over my "pampering" of Nicole were occasionally loud.

Carson points out that when grandparents become substitute parents for a grandchild "they lose the role of grandparents, a very sad loss. Parents need to set limits. The grandparent is normally outside the daily grind and escapes the requirements that are necessary for children."

One ploy for grandparents raising their grandchildren, she suggests, is for the grandparent to revert to being the grandparent for one hour a day, with the child's knowledge, and to indulge them in the manner of a grandparent. "You should explain your situation and talk it over with the kids," Carson adds. "They deserve to understand what is happening."

I wish I could have consulted with Carson before we launched into this adventure. Our hard work and love helped launch Nicole into adulthood, but in some senses, we got lucky.

At 23, she's considerably calmer and more mature, both in her life and her art. She lives with her boyfriend, a writer named Adam, rent-free in a unit of an apartment building we own in Oakland. (Her parents are grateful she has a safe place to live.) Their lifestyle is minimalist; they live on what part-time jobs bring in. Nicole spends a good deal of her time painting. She has exhibited at galleries in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, has sold four paintings and been published in New York art magazines. Her irascible nature still manages to fire through, but so does a polished sense of humor and a caring that she was once slow to display.

On her 21st birthday, asked what she would like as a present, she responded, "A martini with my grandpa."

What her future holds is out of our hands. All we can hope for is that we all collectively helped give Nicole the wings to fly clear of stormy skies.

Al Martinez is a former Times columnist.

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