Sarah* works in middle management with a national company. Charlie took early retirement to stay at home when it became apparent that they'd have to raise their daughter Abby's child, because Abby and her husband refuse to take responsibility for their own lives, much less that of their child.
Sarah and Charlie face an increasingly common circumstance. Four and a half million caregivers are raising more than seven million children in the United States today. Most of these are grandparents raising their children's children. Others are family members caring for a relative's child. While some of these cases arise because of the death, mental illness, or incarceration of one or both parents, 80 percent or more are because of the drug and alcohol addictions of the children's parents.
"People are less than honest if they say something like this doesn't affect their marriage," says Pat Owens, who with her husband, is raising a grandson and is co-founder of GrandFamilies of America (www.grandfamiliesofamerica.org). This organization provides grandparents and other kinship caregivers with tools for navigating the complex government systems they meet in attempting to help relative children.
Decide Whose Problem It Is
Grandparents raising grandkids are destined to make a painful discovery. You cannot fix other people's problems, even if the person who is failing is your own much-loved child.
Your focus must be on keeping the grandchild safe. Untangle yourself from your child's trials and tribulations. This is difficult because this is your child we're talking about. How can you bear to think of her in need, maybe homeless?
Sarah finally recognized she could not continue to function at this level of emotional turmoil. Charlie saw the wisdom of what she was saying. Hard as it was to do to their own flesh and blood, they had shake free of Abby's messes and use the strength they had to give the baby as normal a life as possible.
"Once we worked our way to the same page, this decision drew us together," Sarah says.
Elsie, who with her husband, Paul, is raising their drug-addicted son's two children, agrees.
"It's the parent—your child—not the grandkid, who keeps your nerves on edge. If they were strangers, you could say, 'Go!' But it's your child. The financial and emotional strain is awful. My husband and I determined early on to discuss everything concerning our son and his drug problem with each other. We found it took communication between us to another level. It had to. It was either that or let this drug-addicted adult child drive a wedge between us. It finally becomes a 'them-or-us' mentality."
Even though you're loving parents, you must not be enablers.
"We sat down together and decided where the boundaries were," said Joan who with her husband, Sam, is raising their grandchildren. "My husband and I had been down the road of paying for rehab for our son's drug problem three or four times. We'd paid apartment rent. We'd fixed his car. Yet he made no effort to beat the habit. He still doesn't. It was such a relief when we finally accepted the fact that we were just enabling his bad behavior with our financial support. It's not that we don't still love him. We do and always will. But we released him emotionally and financially. Our addicted son can come around and bounce ideas off us. We pray for him and listen to him if he wants to vent. But taking on the role of parents again for his children is all we can handle. We will not support his bad behavior."
She continues, "Your erring child has to fix his or her own problems. Our job is to unite to raise our grandkids to be as healthy and normal physically, mentally, and emotionally as possible. Sit down with your spouse and plan how to make that happen."
See the Children as a Catalyst, not a Wedge
The Landrums faced a different circumstance. Alex Landrum, who practices law in St. Louis, and his wife, Rebecca, assistant pastor at a St. Louis church, have three children, Timothy, 16, Annette, 13, and George, 9.
They considered their family complete until Rebecca's 20-year-old cousin-in-law showed up at a family gathering, asking if anybody in the family could take her kids. Working third shift in a nursing home and struggling to pay off thousands of dollars of debt, she was overwhelmed with the care of her three daughters, a five-year-old and three-year-old twins. The children's father, her ex-husband and Rebecca's cousin, is in jail on drug and other criminal charges.
Rebecca's mother-hen instinct kicked in. She agreed to help without hesitation.
"What could we do?" she says. "How could we not share the blessings of our home with them? It was like Jesus knocking on the door and saying, 'Care for the widowed and the orphaned.' My first thought was, Of course we'll welcome them; it's the right thing to do. That thought has really guided me in the moments where I question my sanity."
Alex was more hesitant, but in the end, they decided to adopt the twins. Rebecca's brother and his wife added the 5-year-old to their family of two preschoolers.
Rebecca explains, "We went into the custody agreement feeling strong as a family—our commitment to each other and to all the children in our care keeps us focused and centered. We both understand what we're doing as a specific call to discipleship and an opportunity to give two children a healthy, loving (but not perfect) family in which to grow up." Far from being a wedge driving them apart, the Landrums worked to make the twins a catalyst, a means of focusing and centering their love for each other and for all five of their children.
If the marriage is stable and strong to begin with, even though the man frequently has misgivings early on about taking in his grandchildren or other relative's children, the couple is usually able to work it out. The marriage stays strong, even in the face of hard financial circumstances and vast changes in lifestyle.
Alex and Rebecca had one advantage grandparents raising their children's children don't have—emotional distance. The cousin and his ex-wife weren't people the Landrums saw on a regular basis. Rebecca had not grown up emotionally close to this cousin. Yet Alex and Rebecca would be the first to acknowledge that adding two more children to their family with little advance notice has affected their marriage. They report their biggest adjustment is in lifestyle.
"Shifting back to the household demands of preschoolers has taken a lot of adjusting," Rebecca said. She has resigned her full-time job as assistant pastor, working part time in the parish, in order to be at home more with the twins.
Rebecca's brother and his wife, who added the cousin's five-year-old girl to their family of two preschoolers, have now, eight months later, separated. This child revealed hitherto unnoticed flaws in the marriage. Even the couple themselves seemed not to realize the marriage was on shaky ground. If you see weak spots escalating, get Christian marriage counseling quickly. Head off trouble. As Rebecca said, "It would be just awful if Alex and I weren't communicating."
It's important for you both to realize that this is going to be a difficult undertaking. Be prepared for parenting methods you used with your first set of children not to work with grandchildren, especially if you didn't get them until they were more than six months old and/or have been neglected or abused. Pray for insight into why the child acts as he does. Inform yourself on behaviors to look for that could indicate your grandchild may have been sexually abused. Learn to recognize signs of drug abuse. It's not your fault if your grandchild doesn't respond or learn normally.
Virtually all of the children who wind up in grandparents' custody have had chaotic infancy and toddler years. Many have ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactive disorder). Knowing this going in is another way to lessen stress on the marriage.
Linda says she was always a doer. Her husband, Joe, was a nurturer, a trait Linda says frustrated her when their children were growing up. After they took custody of their grandson, Linda says she sees her husband in a new light. Because of work schedules, Joe is at home with the baby more than Linda is.
"I've come to appreciate Joe's nurturing ability. After 30 years of marriage, I've fallen in love with my husband all over again," Linda says. "I appreciate his ability to care for a little child, to let the little one know he's cherished in a way I never valued when our first kids were small."
Face Reality and Prepare for the Long Haul
Sarah and Charlie thought they were different. Their daughter and her boy-husband weren't drug addicts, just immature and self-centered. They were sure caring for their daughter's baby was temporary. They didn't need to get legal custody. Surely the kids would shape up and be able to take over parenting in a year or two.
Reality began to dawn after Sarah attended a conference for grandparents as parents.
"I got slapped in the face with the realization that Charlie and I were all that stood between Josiah being happy and successful or most probably not," Sarah says. "We'd been avoiding confrontation with our daughter—going along thinking surely everything would work out. However, I saw the reality of the situation and how our refusing to stand up could really hurt Josiah. We saw a family lawyer, and got legal custody.
"It took the weight of the world off our shoulders. We no longer fear that our daughter and her irresponsible husband can take the baby back to a life of abuse and neglect. Now that we've realized that we don't have to be entangled in our daughter's collapses in order to keep Josiah safe, we can begin to enjoy this new chapter of our lives."
Rebecca sums up the whole experience of taking on kids that aren't your own. "Christ calls us to welcome the stranger. To me, that kind of radical hospitality is a primary mark of the Christian life. If those in the church aren't open to adopting others as Christ has adopted us, we've failed to realize what Jesus meant when he said we're to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I don't want to sound trite, but this was for us the only answer to the question, 'What would Jesus do?' He would let the little children come to him … so we did too."
*All names and places have been changed.