Life is not a matter of milestones, but of moments. Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

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Grandparents Parenting...Again!

Sylvie de Toledo

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Excerpt from Grandparents as Parents: A Survival Guide for Raising a Second Family

Sometimes the call comes at night, sometimes on a bright morning. It may be your child, the police, or child protective services. "Mama, I've messed up." "We're sorry. There has been an accident." "Mrs. Smith, we have your grandchild. Can you take him?" Sometimes you make the call yourself -- reporting your own child to the authorities in a desperate attempt to protect your grandchild from abuse or neglect. Often the change is gradual. At first your grandchild is with you for a day, then four days, a month, and then two months as the parents slowly lose control of their lives. You start baby-sitting. You think the arrangement is temporary. You put off buying a crib or moving to a bigger apartment. Then you get a collect call from jail -- or no call at all.

But whether the arrival is slow or sudden, at some point it dawns on you: You are no longer watching your grandchildren; you are raising them. Take the grand out of grandparent; you are parenting again, and your life will never be the same again.

Emily Petersen knew her pregnant daughter-in-law, Sheila, was a drug addict. She knew the young woman was using drugs throughout her entire pregnancy, and she was prepared to see the effects in her newborn granddaughter -- the stiff body, the frantic eyes, the shakes. What Emily was not prepared for was becoming a mother again at 59. But when she and her husband, Carter, arrived at the hospital to see the baby, they found a social worker and two bodyguards outside the hospital room. Sheila had been arrested on drug charges, and the baby was being removed. The social worker asked Emily if she would be willing to take the child. "I came to visit a baby," Emily told her. "I didn't come to take a baby home." But her son was in tears, begging them not to send Amanda into foster care, and neither Emily nor Carter could stand the idea of not knowing where their granddaughter was. A week later the grandparents filed for custody.

Ivy Johnson had not seen her daughter Rachel in four years; she had never even met her youngest granddaughter. They lived in Arizona and had no money to travel. Then Rachel left her husband and came home with her kids. The minute she came to the door, Ivy knew something more was wrong. Within three days Rachel was diagnosed with liver cancer. Seven months later she died, leaving Ivy to raise five young grandchildren in a one-bedroom apartment.

There is nothing new about a grandparent raising a child in a crisis. For centuries grandparents have taken over when their grandchildren were orphaned by disease or war or when financial troubles split a family. They have also stepped in to support single mothers and widowed or divorced parents of both sexes. Moreover, there is a proud tradition of intergenerational families in working-class neighborhoods as well as in African-American and Hispanic communities of all income levels.

What is new are the numbers: of grandparents, of grandchildren, of crises. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 3.2 million children under 18 were living in grandparents' homes in 1990-a 40 percent increase in 10 years. Nearly one million homes had no parents present at all. And the real numbers are probably higher: Many grandparents don't acknowledge or recognize that they are taking full-time care of their grandchildren; perhaps they only watch them four days a week or are ashamed to admit that their own children can't parent. Many don't believe the situation is permanent. Some estimates put the number of grandparents raising grandchildren at over five percent of American families. That would be approximately 1 in 20 households, or one family per average city block.

For more information and resources, email Sylvie at or call (818) 789-1177.

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