On Sunday, about 2.7 million grandmothers across the nation will get Mother’s Day gifts ... from their grandchildren.
Grandchildren might ask, "Should I wait until Grandparents Day to honor my grands? Or should I give Mother’s Day cards now because my Meemaw or Big Mamma is doing everything my parents are supposed to be doing?"
That grandparents are raising their grandchildren is nothing new. Shoot, my grandmother raised me for the majority of my young life. But what is happening now is a rising number of children falling through growing fissures in the nuclear family caused by parents’ incarceration, addiction to opioids and other drugs, and the loss of jobs.
“You hit it right on the head,” said Mary, with Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Louisiana, about these commonly cited reasons for the growth in grandparents taking over raising their grandchildren. GRGL is a nonprofit organization that provides information to support grandparents and other kinship caregivers and their families.
Ava’s blonde hair sticks straight up in the air after she whizzes down her favorite slide at the playground.
Not only is she with GRGL, she has temporary custody of six grandchildren and is fighting in court to keep them. Mary did not want her real named used.
While Mary and others like her never dreamed they would be caring for their grandchildren, they have heroically leapt into the fray, assuming the emotional, financial and health-related burdens that come with the job.
The best estimate is that there are 63,000 grandparents in Louisiana who are taking care of their grandchildren. The trend touches all households, regardless of ethnicity. It tends, however, to be disproportionately in the African-American community. While African-Americans make up about 32 percent of the state’s population, at least 44 percent of the grandparents raising grandchildren are African-American.
The public, Mary says, doesn’t understand some of the heartbreaking problems facing people in her situation who are battling in court to keep their grandchildren out of harm’s way. There are financial and major emotional costs. “Can you imagine sitting across the table from your child trying to get custody of her children?”
She and her husband and have been to court eight times in the last 10 months dealing with custody. The financial toll is scary, she said, although with her husband working, she has it better than others.
There is another group of grandparents “who don’t have the financial means of taking care of their grandchildren. They really want to help but can’t. You can’t imagine how devastating that is for them,” Mary said.
What is tough, too, is that grandparents, some of whom have health problems to begin with, can often exacerbate their risks when taking on the responsibility of raising grandchildren. Remember, Mary has six of them.
Some research shows that compared with noncaregiving peers, grandparents who are raising their children have more health problems. When resources are limited — whether they be money, time or energy — grandparents will prioritize their grandchildren over themselves.
The situation can lead to undiagnosed health problems, untreated chronic diseases and undesirable health practices such as poor nutrition and lack of exercise.
Also, grandparents can experience depression and anxiety from the stress of child care. In one study of grandmothers raising grandchildren, about 40 percent were found to be in the clinically elevated range on measures of psychological distress.
Mary said there are few state and federal programs that help people in her situation. Because of her husband’s income, and because they don’t have full custody of the grandchildren, they can’t qualify for food stamps or other financial help.
“Sometimes, you feel punished for standing up for the grandchildren,” she said.
And, she said, her organization has seen too often instances where the courts will side with the biological parents in the custody fights, leaving the children in risky situations. “What about the rights of the children?” she asked.
Speaking for so many of the grandparents in her same situation, Mary said city, state and federal governments need to develop programs to help loving grandparents who want to save their grandchildren from foster care but don’t have the means.
Mary said she had an idea how to be a grandparent raising grandchildren because her grandmother stepped up to raise her. “It prepared me ... now that I find myself in the same position, I let my grandchildren know that they did nothing wrong ... and that they are loved.”
As for her and her husband, Mary tries not to dwell on the situation they never saw coming: “You don’t ever look back at what could have been. You don’t have the option to think about it.” There are a lot of grandmothers out there right now raising their grandchildren — many not by choice. The parents are in jail, on drugs or just not there for their children.
Happy Mother’s Day to those like my late grandmother who sacrifice everything to make life better for their grandchildren.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at email@example.com.