Grandma: I know you miss your mom, honey.
Kiera: I’m just tired of explaining the whole thing to everyone.
Grandma: Kiera, you can call me whatever makes it easier for you.
At 53, DiDi DeWitt had just retired from community development work and was looking forward to a change. Then her neglected and physically abused 15-year-old granddaughter called, and DeWitt got all the change she could handle.
“My granddaughter was in a crisis and asked if she could come and stay. Of course, I said yes,” DeWitt says. “Now I feel like I’m in the army, I’m on a mission, and I’ve got to accomplish this mission. Everyday, I say ‘I have to get from here to there, and how do I get there, and who do I have to take out to get there?’ I’m a very good strategist.”
DeWitt is one of a growing number of U.S. grandparents who are dropping retirement plans of traveling, relaxing, or taking up a new hobby in order to care for a grandchild. According to the 2000 census, just over 6 percent of U.S. children are living with their grandparents. That’s 4.4 million kids—and 2.4 million grandparents. Some of these children’s parents are involved in the grandparent-led households; others aren’t around at all.
“There are a lot of reasons why this is happening,” says Dr. Mary Brintnall-Peterson, an aging specialist with the University of Wisconsin. “The social support system is really seeking out relatives as the safety net; most family members want to keep the care-giving in the family. There’s a variety of reasons why this [grandparents raising girls] happens, but I look at drugs and alcohol addiction as the basic reason.
Also we are incarcerating more individuals; we’re incarcerating more women. It used to be if the father got in trouble, the mother was there to care for the children. Now if the mother gets into trouble, in a lot of cases the father is already gone. Teen pregnancy is another reason. There’s also death.”
The children who come to these grandparents often have special needs too. In DeWitt’s case, her 15-year-old granddaughter was starting seventh grade for the third time (her mother had never worked with the school), and was significantly behind in her reading and writing skills. “She was worrying about other things too, like surviving,” DeWitt says of the girl, who had been living in a dangerous inner-city housing project. Her social skills were about what you’d expect from a girl who’d been neglected and abused.
Now DeWitt is doing everything she can to bolster the girl’s self-esteem, and to let her know that her grandma is on her side, so she can relax some of her defenses and realize she no longer needs to lie or sneak food. “You’ve got to be there 24/7 with her,” DeWitt says. “She’ll lose course. That took a lot out of me. I have to be on task. When she starts slipping, I have to come in and say ‘We are not going backward, we are going forward.’ Being structured, being focused, it works for her. She’s motivated.”
DeWitt knows what all the experts say to grandparents: Girls, especially those girls who have lost their core relationship with their parents, need extra attention and help to succeed. DeWitt has steered her granddaughter toward the performing arts, a realm in which the girl feels competent. Her granddaughter, like so many teen girls, thought that being some cool boy’s girlfriend was a major accomplishment, says DeWitt. Her wiser grandmother—aided by members of her Grandparents as Parents support group—is making sure the girl has loftier goals, and can see herself as a strong woman with a life of her own.
Brintnall-Peterson applauds approaches like DeWitt’s. She says caretaker grandparents can show girls a better way, while making sure they’re surrounded by other caring adults they can turn to when their grandparents won’t do. “With girls in particular, helping them understand how to break the cycle is critical,” Brintnall-Peterson says. “We really want to help the girls increase their self-esteem and feel good about themselves so that they don’t resort to drugs and alcohol and crime, and they don’t end up in poverty. If a girl gets pregnant without support, she continues the cycle.”
Nearly half of all grandparent-led homes are run by single women, says Amy Goyer, coordinator of the AARP (an advocacy group for older Americans) Information Center. When there’s no grandfather on the scene, especially if the girl also has a troubled or non-existent relationship with her father, it can mean future trouble with men for her.
“Often the relationship girls have with their fathers influences the relationships they have with other men. If they don’t have a relationship with their grandfather either, you can just imagine the influence that could have on young girl’s life,” says Goyer. “Grandmothers can help by trying to make sure that they have positive males in their lives.”
Goyer acknowledges that for many grandparents, basic care-giving is hard enough without throwing in enrichment too. Many people raising grandchildren are struggling financially, emotionally, and socially. Often their relationship with their own child has suffered; now they have put their lives on hold and are just trying to make it through the day. Many grandparents are desperate before they reach out for help. Once they do, Goyer says, they are often pleasantly surprised by what they find.
“My number one piece of advice would be to get as well informed as you can be,” Goyer says. “The problem I see is that these grandparents are isolated. They don’t know about the benefits available to them; they don’t know about the resources available to their grandchildren.”
Allen Gewertz can attest to the power of information and support. When his stepdaughter became pregnant at 14, Gewertz and his wife, Dawn, brought home both the girl and her baby. Soon, however, their daughter took off, and she has been in trouble with drugs and bad relationships ever since. The Gewertzs have raised their granddaughter, now 9, and are also raising another granddaughter, 3. Although Allen loves the girls and says he wouldn’t change a thing, he admits it’s been a tough job—one he says he couldn’t have done without his GAP support group.
“We share resources—we share clothes, pass around cribs and swings, walkers and high chairs and things we’re not going to use,” Gewertz says. “We had given away our first granddaughter’s stuff when we joined, and then when the second one came, we got some of it back. Or we’ll see one of the other grandchildren wearing something that we donated. We didn’t know about some of the things available to us, like childcare. It makes it easier.”
Gewertz and his wife receive both practical and emotional support from the group. And so does their 9-year-old granddaughter, who often calls the group’s leader if she has a question. Gewertz remembers the girl’s first support group picnic: “At that very first picnic she found out she wasn’t the only one. It was a miracle,” Gewertz says. “She wasn’t the only granddaughter being raised by her grandparents. It took a whole lot off her shoulders. She went to preschool that week and shared about the picnic, and two other girls in the class came up to her and said their parents were like that too.”
DeWitt also finds her GAP support group invaluable. There are just too many struggles to handle alone, she says. But despite the workload and the worry, she’s glad to be there for her granddaughter. And she’s confident the result will be a good one. “I do believe, in spite of the battles, we’re going to win the war,” DeWitt says. “I believe that she is going to be a successful adult. The day-to-day stuff can get you irritated, but I have to stay focused on the big goal.”
About the author: Anne O’Connor is a Wisconsin freelance writer and author of The Truth About Stepfamilies: Real American Families Speak Out (Da Capo Press, 2003).