When grandparents parent

What home life looks like when grandparents are in charge

It could have been such a nice Christmas Eve. Judy Michaud and her daughter Danielle had spent the morning making appetizers and finger foods: a cheese ball, artichoke dip, and spinach dip in a hollowed-out pumpernickel loaf. They’d taken butter tarts, Nanaimo bars and other sweets out of the freezer. Twenty-three people were coming over — parents, siblings, children and grandchildren from both her and her husband Mich’s families. “We were going all out,” says the 48-year-old grandmother, who lives in Nanaimo, BC. “I pictured a really wonderful evening.”

The first hint that her plans would unravel came around noon. Brad, the boyfriend of Michaud’s other daughter, Jen, showed up unexpectedly to borrow money from Danielle. It struck Michaud as odd. Why did he arrive in a cab? Why did he need so much money — $150? Then she thought about the phone call from Jen the day before. “I won’t be coming to help with the decorating. We’re just going to stay home and hang out.” At the time, Michaud put it down to the miscarriage Jen had suffered several weeks before.

But now alarm bells were going off. Jen had had drug problems when she was younger. “We’d been through a lot with her, but I honestly thought that she and Brad had cleaned up. They had a nice home, two nice kids…,” Michaud trails off.

She hurried over to Jen’s place. No one answered her knock, but knowing that Jen was home, Michaud let herself in. One look at her glassy-eyed daughter slumped on the couch confirmed her worst fears. Jen was high on crack. The two little ones were nearby. Austin, eight months old, bounced happily in his Exersaucer, while two-year-old Jaden tooted around busily, playing with his toys.

Jen looked up. “I’m really sorry, Mom,” she said.

Within 15 minutes, Michaud was back in her car, the two little boys in their car seats behind her, along with a hastily packed bag of clothes and diapers. “There was no way I was leaving my grandkids in that situation, and I knew that if I didn’t take them, social services would sooner or later,” she says. Michaud had to stop to buy formula for Austin on the way home. “I didn’t even have a bottle in the house,” she recalls.

The Christmas Eve party went ahead. Michaud did her best to make it a nice time for everyone. But inside her heart, all hell was breaking loose.

Michaud thought — hoped, is more like it — she’d be caring for her grandchildren for a few months at most. But 3½ years later, she and her husband are still counted among the growing number of Canadian grandparents who are acting as primary parents to grandchildren. Skipped generation families is what they are sometimes called. In 2001, about one in 100 Canadian grandparents (56,700 in total) were raising grandchildren without the involvement of the children’s mom or dad. That was a 20 percent increase from 1991.

Why? The short answer is drugs, alcohol and mental health problems. Barbara Whittington, a family therapist and professor of social work at the University of Victoria, says substance abuse was a factor in all but five of the 22 families she interviewed in depth for her study of grandmothers caring for grandchildren.

Child welfare authorities can be part of the mix as well. “In 80 percent of the families in our sample, the grandparents got a call from the Ministry of Children and Family Development asking them to step in,” Whittington says.
Full-time grandparenting

It was a social worker who first suggested Patrick Smith take in his granddaughter. Fallon, now nine years old, was taken at birth by child protection workers because of her mother’s drug and alcohol problems. Smith, a recovered alcoholic himself, had not been involved in the day-to-day care of his own children. “I didn’t know anything about babies. I’d never even changed a diaper,” he says. “I’d never considered the idea of assuming full responsibility for Fallon.”

Even so, he was developing feelings for his infant granddaughter. “I’d been up to the Children’s Aid office to see her a few times,” says the single grandfather from Toronto. “We kind of got some eye contact going and I could see a lot of my daughter in her. I started to feel attached.”

A social worker said, “You seem healthy enough, Patrick. Why don’t you take care of her?” Smith’s initial response was no, but his daughter also began urging him to take the baby. “She said, ‘Please, Daddy, take her. I’ll go on a program. I’ll get clean and sober and I’ll be able to get her,’” Smith says. “So I took Fallon on a temporary basis, hoping my daughter would go to treatment.”

It didn’t work out that way.

When it finally hit Smith that his daughter was getting worse, not better, he was so crushed he actually had the Children’s Aid take Fallon back. That night was the worst of Smith’s life. “I felt like I’d abandoned her,” he says. “I was mad at myself, disappointed in my daughter. I felt I’d been used. If I’d had a gun in my place, I’d have shot myself. That’s how bad I felt.”

Smith eventually regained custody of Fallon, but only after three months of negotiation, assessments and court appearances.

Whittington says taking responsibility for grandchildren is not a simple choice. “Many grandparents are not sure if they are the right person to be looking after the child, and wonder if they’ll be able to do it,” she says.

Skipped generation grandparents deal with numerous difficulties — unexpected 24/7 child-rearing responsibilities late in life, financial strains and social isolation. But one of the toughest is the growing realization that your adult child is not going to get better and your grandchild is now your permanent responsibility.

Putting things on hold

When Michaud first took in Jaden and Austin, she had to put many things on hold, including a relatively new business venture, a small company offering life skills training to adults. “That was hard,” she says. “Finally I had found something I loved to do and things were ticking along. Now I had to decide whether to give the business up and look after the kids.”

Caring for Jaden and Austin quickly proved to be even more of a handful than the Michauds had anticipated. Many children in skipped generation families have behaviour and health problems, related either to their parent’s substance abuse or unstable care in their early years. Both Jaden and Austin have had significant behaviour and development issues.

“At first it was really bad,” Michaud says. “We had no idea how to deal with them.” Jaden, now seven, is particularly intense. “Once he wakes up, he’s turned on and he just goes,” says Michaud. One time, at the park, Jaden slipped out from under the noses of not only Michaud, but also her sister and a child development worker who was there to observe Jaden’s behaviour in public.

Michaud sought help — endless assessments and input from various professionals. “For a while I wasn’t coping well at all,” she says. “ I couldn’t keep track of the professionals and I couldn’t handle the kids’ behaviour. I was yelling at them a lot, having my own temper tantrums, really.” Things are going better now, thanks in part to various supports, including some parenting courses she and Mich took through the Child Development Centre.

Finding strategies

In Whittington’s interviews with grandparents, she often picked up a touching combination of “This is so hard” crossed with “These kids are the light of my life.” One grandmother told Whittington she badly needed a hip replacement, but couldn’t even think about having it done because there was no one to look after the children while she recovered from surgery. Another remarked that she wished she could get a MedicAlert bracelet saying “I may look old but I’ve got a young child at home.” There wasn’t a single interview where the grandmother wasn’t crying at some point, says Whittington.

When she and her colleagues decided to study grandmothers raising grandchildren, they were inundated with respondents from all parts of the country, desperate to tell their stories. “They want recognition, support, better access to treatment for both their children and grandchildren, and security for their grandchildren’s future,” Whittington says.

And always close at hand is the concern about the adult child whose life is so messed up that she can’t even really look after herself, let alone children.

“Jen tried so hard, so hard,” says Michaud. “After we took the kids, she went to treatment and got clean for a month. She was seeing the kids.” But things fell apart again. Jen was on the street for a while. Another time she went missing for several weeks. Recently, however, Jen has been doing better. “She’s living safely now and sees the boys when she can,” says Michaud.

And Michaud’s business is back on track. She’s found a good daycare provider for the boys and thanks to some parenting courses, they have found strategies for coping and working with Austin and Jaden. “We’ve bonding together nicely. Full-time grandparenting has become a gift for everyone involved — the boys, us, my daughter, our other children. We see now how sometimes the things we think are the worst things that could possibly happen to us become the biggest blessing in our lives.”

Patrick Smith is hanging in as well, but he says it’s been a roller coaster. “I’m very, very happy that Fallon is with me. I’m thankful to God, because she made a big difference in my life and I’m so proud of her that she’s grown up to be such a nice young lady. And I’m proud of myself about the job I did, which I couldn’t have done without the help of some of the women in my building, all of whom are single moms.”

And then his tone changes from proud to defiant. “But I’ll tell you right now — it’s not fair for a grandparent to have to raise a child. Sometimes, though, grandparents have to step in and do it, and it’s good for the kids that they can.”
 

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