Second Time Around
A grandpa rediscovers the wonder of raising a bundle of joy—and runs into some problems.
By Alain Jehlen
Frank Miller was facing one of the worst nightmares a parent can imagine. His 24-year-old daughter, home on a visit, was lying on the couch, sick with heroin withdrawal pains, while her one-year-old daughter patted her face—a toddler trying to mother her own mother.
Jennifer Arsenault enjoys a teaching moment with two students from military families at Birdneck Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
So began a life adventure filled with the joys of bringing up a little girl, tempered by the pain of dealing with a grown daughter in crisis and the complications that come with a family arrangement very different from what’s ex-pected, but becoming much more common.
According to the 2000 census, 4.5 million children live in grandparent-headed households, up 30 percent since 1990. That’s more than 6 percent of children under
age 18, although in many cases, the parents are also in the household.
News stories about grandparents bringing up children usually focus on low-income, minority grandparents, but “that’s the tip of the iceberg,” says Miller. There are also non-minority, middle class grandparents in this situation—like him and his wife, who live in Denton, Maryland.
Poor or not poor, grandparents raising children need help and consideration from educators, Miller says. Instead, he adds, they often feel disapproved of. “Some people seem to feel, ‘You screwed up the first time. What gives you the right to try again?’ But grandparents are forced into this situation. They’ve done the right thing, and they deserve respect and support.”
The grandchildren are likely to have extra problems caused by their difficult childhood experiences before the grandparents stepped in. The Millers’ granddaughter spent a year in and out of foster care before her grandparents got custody, and she bears emotional scars, says Miller.
Grandparents may also have trouble getting medical insurance for a grandchild until they complete the adoption process, which for the Millers took until this past November.
Then there’s the problem that grandparents may be unable to understand the lives of modern children. “My wife and I are educators, we’re in schools every day, so we’re in touch, but what if I were an engineer or a plumber? I’m 55, so I went to elementary school in the 1950s. There are grandparents in this situation in their 60s, who went to school in the 40s. A lot has changed.
“They may need to learn how special education works, how to help with homework, what’s No Child Left Behind?” Miller says.
There are social expectations as well—What’s normal for an eight- or 12-year-old these days? “When the child comes home and says, ‘Everybody’s doing it,’ is it okay, or do I need to say, ‘No.’”
Grandparent-parents may also suffer social isolation. “A lot of our friends shunned us,” says Miller. “They don’t invite us to social gatherings because they don’t want a five-year-old around.”
At the same time, he says, the parents of his granddaughter’s little friends don’t really want to see them socially, either. “They don’t invite us old coots. They don’t think about us for play dates or birthday parties.”
The Millers are perhaps even more dedicated to their little girl than most parents because, whether it’s rational or not, they do feel that guilt, Miller explains. This time, they’re determined to do everything right.
So instead of empty nest freedom, their lives are filled with soccer practice, dance lessons, and hundreds of bedtime stories.
“I was getting ready to retire,” says Frank, “but now I’m starting over. I’ll be 66 when she’s in high school.
“But I have no regrets. I love this girl to death. It’s been 20 years since I’ve heard a little voice, chased a little girl around the house, and put her on my shoulders. Fortunately, I’m in pretty good health, but I’ve started working out and lifting weights so I can keep up with her.”
For other grandparents raising grandchildren, Miller recommends checking out the Web site of Grandparents United Delaware, at www.grandparentsunitedde.org, which has links to other useful sites.