There’s an old joke, a favorite among grandparents: “We don’t know which is better -- the headlights as the grandchildren come up the driveway to visit, or the taillights as they drive away with mom and dad.” To grandparents, grandchildren are both wonderful and tiring, and it helps if you can send them home to mama or daddy while you take a rest before the next visit.
Traditionally, grandparenting is a love relationship that carries certain luxuries, like not having the responsibility of sculpting a well-adjusted, morally upright, educated, and competent human and citizen. Grandparents can give their grandchildren wide latitude in their behavior and demands, which the parents can erase later. There’s even a Grandparents Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day. This year, national Grandparents Day is September 8, thanks to President Jimmy Carter, who signed the bill into law in 1978. In his Proclamation he said:
Our grandparents bore the hardships and made the sacrifices that produced much of the progress and comfort we enjoy today . It is appropriate, therefore, that as individuals and as a nation, that we salute our grandparents for their contribution to our lives.
Being a parenting grandparent, however, is quite a different story. We don’t have a day set aside for us to rest in a hammock after enjoying the grandchildren’s visit.
Maybe a day should be set aside for the growing number of grandparents who are parenting their grandchildren. I would call it National Parenting Grandparent’s Day and nominate every day for that celebration, because parenting grandparents live in a kind of undefined, mysterious land in between being a parent and being a grandparent. In this strange state, headlights already came and we won’t see any taillights.
For us, the days of “cute misbehavior” are over; now the relationship demands consistent discipline. Discontent, temper tantrums, hunger, whining and throwing themselves to the floor now demand constant attention. The pleasure of reading a bedtime story instead of watching the evening news now becomes a long-term teaching tool. We will go through all the “been there, done that” activities like potty training, time out, staying up and waiting for them to get in on time, worrying about the company they keep, wondering if they are experimenting with risky behavior – “déjà vu all over again,” even at our ages.
Looking at Parenting Grandparents
We look and feel quite different from the other parents, and the other kids are aware of that strange difference. You look like a grandparent but don’t act like the grandparents they know. Pre-schoolers usually refer to their little friends’ parents as “Jack’s mom” or “Susie’s dad”; they will say “Hi, Jack’s mom” in the mornings. When my granddaughter was in pre-school, the other children intuited the difference and did not know what to call me.
If you are among this special group of people, the first thing to know about parenting grandchildren and/or being the grandchildren’s primary caregiver is that you are not alone. The numbers surge every year, but becoming aware of this new reality of American families was slow in coming. Academics, the media, policy makers, and the government barely began to notice these rising numbers as a trend until someone discovered in 1992 that 3.3 million kids under 18 were living in homes maintained by their grandparents. Today there may be as many as 7 million.
By 1997 the biggest demographic jump was the numbers of kids under 18 who lived with their grandparent(s) with no parent in the household.
Next, someone got the idea to include the proper questions in the 2000 Census that would reveal homes where children under 18 lived with grandparents who maintained the home or were the primary caregivers. The report distinguished between the number of households with grandparent(s) as primary caregiver(s) and the number of people who were grandparents as caregivers of kids under 18: households, 4.1 million; parenting grandparents, 5.8 million. In 59 percent of the households, there was only one caregiving grandparent. All those households with caregiving grandparents represented nearly 4 percent of ALL the households counted in the 2000 Census.
In 2007, there were 6.2 million grandparents whose grandchildren younger than 18 were living with them; almost half of those grandparents were solely responsible for the kids’ most basic needs. In 2011, the figure role to 7 million.
In 2008, 6.6 million children under 18 were living with a grandparent. In 2009, that figure rose to 7 million. In 2010, the figure advanced to 7.5, but dropped in 2011 to 5.5, for some reason, even though the number of co-resident grandparents rose.
The point is, we and the children we raise and care for represent a large and growing segment of the population; we know the difficulties and needs, even though we are too quiet about them. Maybe it is time for our voices to become louder to match the numbers we represent.
Note: This article will appear in Prime Lifestyle Magazine of Tuscaloosa, a local magazine for mature consumers: 3046 Dewberry Lane, Tuscaloosa, AL 35405; (205) 344-9258
http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/consumer/10241.html (has a list of Internet resources)