Five years ago, my grandchildren, Kristen, now eight, and Marissa, six, moved into our farm home with their dad (our eldest son, Geoff) in the wake of a marriage that didn't make it past its fourth anniversary. While I dearly love my son and granddaughters, this living arrangement wasn't how I envisioned spending my "autumn" years with my husband, Campbell.
To be honest, when our four kids left the nest to get married, I looked forward to my life as an empty-nester. I redecorated our house, exchanging all those durable, kid-friendly earthtones for serene shades of pale blue, peach, and off-white. Since I'd postponed pursuing a career until my family was raised, I enrolled in graduate school to complete a doctorate in seventeenth- century prose.
But a month after I graduated, I found I had to put professional notions on hold to cope with a grieving three year old and a baby still in diapers. That summer—and every summer since—Campbell and I have been surrogate parents for our granddaughters, since our son's summer job as a pilot has him flying water bombers in northern Canada's fire-prone forests. Geoff restores aircraft the rest of the year, so he's able to assume more responsibility—but it's been hard to make up the deficit left by a mother's departure. And it's been hard for us to adjust to parenting the second time around.
Calling All Grandparents
More and more children are being raised by grandparents—a growing trend for which neither the children nor their grandparents volunteer. I've identified three main reasons why many of us are being summoned to an unplanned "round two" of mothering: Unmarried mothers (with the support of their parents) often choose to keep their babies rather than put them up for adoption; unemployed or underemployed young adults move back into parents' homes or rely on their moms for unpaid childcare; and, as in my son's case, divorces often create the need for grandparents' assistance.
Of course it's not all diapers and drudgery. There's great joy in life with little children; they quickly find room in our hearts and lives. And there's a richness in intergenerational families that's largely been lost in America today.
But I'm not dewy-eyed about the situation. It's not easy to play the Waltons. Caring for children is time-consuming: Meals are more demanding; there's more laundry and housework; and everything must be done with inquisitive little ones at your side. Furthermore, I don't have the energy I had twenty years ago; sometimes, the clutter and chatter seem more than I can bear. By the time the two little girls are storied, sung to, prayed with, hugged, and snugly tucked in bed, most evenings I'm too tired even to read. My friendships suffer. My free-lance writing must be done in grab-and-snatch sessions in the midst of constant interruptions. And the few quiet moments Campbell and I find to be alone make me yearn for more.
Women in my situation usually don't feel free to express their frustration at having to re-engage in a stage of life they thought they'd completed. Instead, pent-up feelings are apt to lead to depression.
"Midlife women whose families make new demands on them are conflicted by guilt and anger," says Diane Marshall, family therapist and clinical director of the Institute of Family Living in Toronto. "They often feel responsible for their children's failure in relationships or employment. They feel guilty for feeling angry when their lifestyle is truncated by a new, unexpected set of family needs. And if they have careers outside the home, they feel guilty because they can't offer more support."
Indeed, the women I've talked to deal with a whole slew of complicated emotions:
Anger. When another person's irresponsibility ricochets into our life, hurting vulnerable children and people we love, and consuming our days, we have a right to feel angry. My friend Dorothy was angry at first when her desire to do ministry work was thwarted by a granddaughter who came to live with her. "Feelings aren't wrong," she says. "But the mature woman learns to process or vent her feelings without projecting them at others."
Anxiety. As Geoff waited for final court proceedings on his divorce, we feared he might lose custody of his girls. And for the first couple summers, I was often frantic some accident might befall the toddlers at our farm. Even now, my heart nearly fails at the thought of what might still be ahead as the girls grow toward maturity.
My friend Sandra, who helps her son care for two preschool-age grandsons, says, "When the kids go to spend weekends with their mother, I've had to learn to say, 'Lord, you look after them, wherever they are, whatever's going on.' "
Grief. Only those who've experienced the loss of a beloved daughter- or son-in-law know how deep the pain of that bereavement is. Our own grief is multiplied as we share the emotional wounds inflicted on our son and his children. We know our grandchildren will face the lingering effects of the loss of their mother. For our part, Campbell and I have chosen to give them honest, age-appropriate information when we're asked, and afterward we try to affirm how beloved and precious they are.
When a friend's granddaughter asked, "How could Mommy have had a baby without having a husband?", she breathed a silent prayer and answered quietly, "Your mommy had a boyfriend and they started a baby, but they weren't ready to start a home. So you came to live in our home, and we're so glad you did."
Women who revisit mothering are also likely to one day experience another kind of loss: the loss of grandchildren when an adult child remarries or moves back out. After caring for her son's daughter for four-and-a-half years, my friend Irene's son remarried and took the child with him. I asked her how she was coping. "Well, I cry a lot," she said.
Isolation. We may feel isolated emotionally. Our peers are taking golf lessons or starting new careers while we read Little Red Riding Hood for the umpteenth time. For Campbell, having the children around has been a source of renewal and delight. So even he—my dearest friend and confidant—hasn't found it easy to understand that for me, it's not a complete joy.
After Sandra's son and two small grandsons squeezed into a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with her and her minister husband, Sandra reached a point where she couldn't cope. "I call it my Black Hole, and I didn't think I could get out of it," she says. "When I found myself thinking it would be easier just to be dead and rid of all the stress, I went to get counseling."
For me, I find therapy in a few deeply trusted friends to whom I can pour out my heart. I also make time to write in my journal. Often what I write are prayers, pouring out my perplexity and confusion. The Psalms, with their honest expressions of bewilderment and anger, confusion and desperation, comfort me. Psalm 39 describes the psalmist's need to speak out his pain and find relief in prayer; Psalm 116 chronicles the movement from grief to praise and invites me, "Be at rest once more, O my soul."
Although I didn't choose the situation in which I find myself, I do have choices. I'm not powerless. I can either let the children at my feet make me old and bitter, or keep me young and on the cutting edge. There's a new incentive to dress well and look good—not just for business or church, but for when I visit the first-grade classroom to take my turn helping children read. I can let myself become mired in self-pity and resentment, or I can say with my Lord, "Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" (John 18:11).
As I've learned to place the little ones' needs above other plans and desires, I've grown more patient. And I've chosen to refuse to let resentment rob me of the many joys of having children around again.
Consider It Joy
Taking up mothering tasks again is certainly not all stress and pain. In fact, I've discovered sustaining joy. I sometimes have to seek it out: to focus on a pretty little face instead of the background disorder, to enjoy the moment of a child's discovery. I struggle to keep my own rest and work in reasonable balance so I don't get overwhelmed by weariness (which all too easily translates into snippishness and general crabbiness). But day by day, I experience joy. I've had a chance to enjoy again all the magical moments in our grandchildren's lives. And we've had lots of just plain fun. I'm learning to take each day as it comes and fill it as full of love and glad memories as I can.
My pale blue carpet is greying. My other redecorating plans—and many other plans—are on hold. But the other day, when several of our adult kids were hugging me good-bye after a holiday weekend at the farm and heading back to their jobs in various cities, my eight-year-old granddaughter, Kristen, looked at me with her big brown eyes and said, "Aren't you glad you've got us, Gram?" And it wasn't a tiny bit hard to reply, "Oh darling, so glad. So glad."
Maxine Hancock is a freelance writer and author of eight books, including Creative, Confident Children (Shaw). She lives with her family in Alberta, Canada.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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