Raising Your Children’s Children

By Sybilla Green Dorros


Challenges and Rewards Abound for the Growing Number of Grandparents Who Are Parenting Again


For Deborah Doucette-Dudman, it was a phone call from her 19-year-old daughter with the news, “Mom, I’m pregnant.” For Ann and John Waters, it was the sudden death of their daughter in a car accident. In Suzanne Brown’s case, she and her husband baby-sat her son’s children more and more often for longer and longer periods of time.


It can happen overnight or over a period of years. But the result in all these cases is the same: At an age when they should be enjoying their hard-earned freedom, these grandparents are back changing diapers, chasing after toddlers and worrying about homework. They are a rapidly growing demographic group: grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.


Grandparents have traditionally played an important part in taking care of their grandchildren and many have stepped in to help raise their grandchildren when circumstances called for it. Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson are among those who were raised by their grandparents. But now it’s no longer such an exception. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 4 million children live in households headed by a grandparent. That’s 6 percent of children under the age of 18. Grandparent-headed households have grown by 105 percent since 1970.


This increase can be attributed to the four D’s: drugs, divorce, desertion and death of a parent. In her book, Grandparents as Parents, Sylvie de Toledo, a social worker who founded a support organization of the same name, cites illnesses, accidents, suicides, murders, drugs and alcohol as some of the factors in this trend. It is estimated that drugs and alcohol account for more than 80 percent of grandparent-led families, de Toledo says. Every year, 375,000 babies are born with drugs in their systems. “But child abuse, incarceration, joblessness, teen pregnancy and AIDS also contribute to the growing number of children without stable homes,” she adds.


For these troubled children, their grandparents may be their saving grace. In her memoirs, poet and author Maya Angelou depicts the important role her grandmother played in her life. When Angelou’s parents’ marriage collapsed, she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother. Angelou writes lovingly of the woman whom she called “Mamma” and expresses the lifelong gratitude she feels for that relationship. The feeling can be mutual: grandparents can also feel blessed by the experience of raising their grandchildren.


No Such Thing as “Typical”


Deborah Doucette-Dudman was only 42 when she began raising her daughter’s daughter. George Kennedy, the star of dozens of movies, including Cool Hand Luke and Airport, was 75 when he was raising his 5-year-old granddaughter. The age difference underscores the diversity in this demographic group. Grandparents raising their grandchildren span a half century in age and they also cut across all socioeconomic levels and ethnic groups.


“Contrary to popular opinion,” says Rachelle Comtois, director of a Grandparents As Parents (GAP) support group, “these grandparents are not elderly. Many of our members are in their 50s and most are still working.” Many are single women who are divorced or widowed.


Often, the grandchildren have come into the world as “crack babies” or with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Their parents’ problems may have leave a mark on them in the form of depression, learning disabilities or other special needs. These “the walking wounded,” as de Toledo refers to them, suffer from increased rates of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder.


Kathleen Magardo, a single mother raising her 8-year-old grandson, hears all about this from the other grandparents in her support group. “It seems like every grandchild is in special ed or on medication,” she says. Many of these children need psychotherapy to deal with their abandonment issues, but they seldom get the professional help they need.


I’d Rather Be Playing Golf!


Most grandparents don’t think twice about taking on the burden of raising their grandchildren if it means keeping them out of foster care or from losing contact with them forever. However, it’s not easy. These grandparents often feel isolated. They’re not always accepted by younger parents and teachers and may even be shunned by their friends because their lifestyles are so different. And, they have to deal with their own negative emotions.


As one grandmother puts it, “Anyone who says they don’t feel some resentment is lying.” Resentment is particularly debilitating if the grandparent couple disagrees about taking on the responsibility. Laurie Harris wanted to adopt her daughter’s daughter, but her husband, Bob, didn’t. This strained their marriage.

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In contrast, Lillian Thayer’s anger is directed against her son. “He took away my privilege of being a grandparent,” she says. Instead of being able to bask in the role of grandmother, she was thrust into raising her two grandsons, then 10 and 11 years old.


Grandparents also have the challenge of dealing with birth parents (if they’re around), and those relationships are often strained. Doucette-Dudman worked hard to include her daughter, Tyra, and the birth father, Randy, in the extended family. As a result, Tyra and her daughter, Sabra, have developed more of a sisterly relationship than a mother/daughter relationship.


Others are not so fortunate. Sometimes grandparents are forced to relinquish the relationship with their children in order to protect their grandchildren. They may even discourage contact since the visits by the birth parents can be disruptive and destructive for the kids.


“I want my son to be involved with his kids,” Thayer explains, “but his visits do a job on them. It takes the boys days to settle down again.”


Overwhelming Challenges


There’s no doubt that the demands of raising grandchildren take a toll on many grandparents’ health. They’re exhausted, but they may also suffer from problems like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, alcoholism and strokes that doctors link in part to the stress of being parents all over again, this time often under far more difficult circumstances than the first time around.


Coupled with the emotional challenges are the financial and legal ones. Grandparents do not get the same benefits as foster parents receive (ranging from $500 to $600 monthly). And though they may be eligible for certain child-welfare benefits (up to about $225 per month), this is rarely enough.


Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren are 60 percent more likely to be living in poverty, according to Census Bureau data. At least 27 percent of children living in grandparent-headed households are living in poverty. If a grandmother is the sole caretaker, she is twice as likely to live below the poverty level. Moreover, many grandparents incur exorbitant legal expenses in the process. In a contested action, the birth parent is usually eligible for free legal assistance. Grandparents may have to go into debt or spending their life savings in order to gain legal custody.


Grandparents’ rights vary from state to state and are often vague. (Read Grandparents: Know Your Rights.) Often, it seems the rules and regulations governing grandparents’ rights are open to different interpretations.


In cases where the grandparents and their grandchildren live in different states, custody and visitation are decided in the jurisdiction where the grandchildren have lived for the past six months.


Help Is at Hand


Many grandparents raising their grandchildren think that their issues are unique and they’re alone in their endeavors. At one time, they probably were. Now, with the growth in the number of those caring for their grandchildren, groups have sprung up all over the country to meet their needs.


The AARP’s Grandparent Information Center (GIC) provides information about services and programs, and maintains a database of support groups. These support groups have been a godsend for many grandparents struggling with emotional, financial, legal or other problems.


“I don’t think I would have made it without my group,” Thayer says of her local GAP chapter.


Thayer’s group gets financial support from community foundations and has a full-time coordinator and a 24/7 helpline. It hosts coffee hours, seminars and workshops on issues ranging from stress management to legal processes. It also helps with finding appropriate housing for these grandparents whose family size may have doubled or tripled overnight, and works with the schools when the grandchildren exhibit behavioral and learning problems.

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Silver Lining

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le="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Many of the stories of grandparents raising grandchildren are heart-wrenching, and there is no doubt that their lives can be fraught with difficulties. Thayer has her share of problems, including failing health and limited financial resources. But she hangs in there because she knows that she’s the best shot her grandkids have at leading a normal life.

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le="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“The kids are a handful,” she admits, “but at least I know they’re safe.”

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Many grandparents share her sentiments: they’re willing to make the sacrifices, even if it means turning their own lives upside down.

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">But there is a silver lining. Margaret Jendrek, a researcher at Miami University in Ohio, has found that, despite major adjustments in their lifestyle, friendships, family and marriage, two-thirds of the custodial grandparents she interviewed reported a greater sense of purpose in life because of their caregiving responsibilities. Indeed, grandparents often find intense joy in being close to their grandchildren and watching them flourish, especially if the kids got off to a shaky start. That can make all the sacrifices worthwhile.

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">As Beverley Tisdell says, “The grandchildren you raise can keep you young, involved and on your toes.”

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">And there are many happy endings. Sabra is now 11 years old and has been part of a loving, nurturing family since birth. Her grandmother, Doucette-Dudman, is quick to point out that she has raised Sabra as her daughter, not her granddaughter.

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“It has worked out wonderfully for me and for Sabra,” she says. “I know it can work out for others as well. It just takes time to get to a better place. Then grandparents do feel genuinely blessed by their grandchildren.”

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">RESOURCES



Empowering Grandparents Raising Children
, by Carole B. Cox, Springer, 2000.

Grandparents as Parents: A Survival Guide for Raising a Second Family
, by Sylvie de Toledo and Deborah Edler Brown, Guildford Press, 1995.

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
, by Bert Hayslip and Robin Goldberg-Glen, Springer, 2000.

Raising Our Children’s Children
, by Deborah Doucette-Dudman, Fairview Press, 1997.

To Grandma’s House, We … Stay: When You Have to Stop Spoiling Your Grandchildren and Start Raising Them
, by Bob Rowland, Studio 4, 1999.


Finding Support

Resource Center
– 303-980-5707,

Information Center

Grandparents As Parents
– 310-924-3996.

Sybilla Green Dorros is a freelance writer with a keen interest in health and lifestyle issues.