Grand Parenting

by Caitlin Gipson

Four backpacks, four lunches, and four sets of homework: Marilyn Collins ’85 lives the crazy, hectic, assembly-line life of the mother of quadruplets, with one notable exception—she’s Grandma. When her daughter, a single mother, died of cancer in October 2009, Collins found herself the sole provider for her eight-year-old grandchildren, three boys and a girl who delight and challenge her daily. As a custodial grandparent, Collins represents a growing trend. Across the United States, an increasing number of grandparents spend their golden years parenting the families that their own children have left behind.

The Growing Role of Grandparents

Grandparents raising grandchildren, while not a new phenomenon, continues to increase in prevalence. The U.S. 2000 Census reported that nearly 6 million children live in households with their grandparents, an increase of more than 30 percent from the 1990 numbers. Grandparent-headed households represent the fastest-growing type of household in the country, and currently more than 2.4 million grandparents raise their grandchildren in homes without a parent present. Studies indicate a twofold cause for this increase: more families suffering the types of crises that lead grandparents to step in (such as teen pregnancy, drugs, incarceration, or military deployment), and the reduced availability of foster homes causing child welfare agencies to preferentially place children with next of kin. As caregivers, grandparents like Collins face a unique set of challenges. The unexpected financial burden, physical strain, and emotional difficulties of parenting at an older age can take their toll. “The biggest burden for me has been a financial one,” Collins explained. “Now I pay both Lisa’s mortgage and my own on my retirement income, and this economy would make it difficult to sell.” Thankfully, her church and her Bodega Bay, California community rallied around them. Neighbors and staff from the Wells Fargo Bank used their trucks to haul away construction debris from her daughter’s house, the local Rotary remodeled one of her two bedrooms to accommodate four beds, and her church threw a benefit dinner to raise money for living expenses. “We’ve seen the benefit of living in a small community. They have really adopted us,” she said. “The small school size helps, too, because the teachers can give them a lot of individualized attention. They assign homework that helps the kids process their grief.”

Healing as a Family

Dealing with grief, in fact, is a common problem for custodial grandparents. Whether the adult child has died, been incarcerated, or left due to homelessness or drugs, both grandparents and children must work through pain, guilt, and often anger. “Sometimes the kids’ grief comes out in behaviors that aren’t acceptable,” Collins said. “For a while, one of the children wouldn’t talk or take directions without pouting. I teach them to channel those feelings into something positive. I try to model that it’s okay to cry and talk about Mom.” Collins believes that healing starts with an openness to grief. “I go to grief counseling and see these people who are emotionally shut down. But I find it healing to talk about her, and about more than just the cancer—that was a small part of my daughter’s life.” Collins advises other grandparents in similar situations to allow the children their grief and small connections to Mom or Dad. Danielle, the oldest, sometimes wears her mom’s body spray. Joshua, the second-born, loves gardening and plans to plant some of his mom’s favorite flora in the garden. “Let them talk and have their memories, whether gardening or cleaning or artwork. Give them a connection to their parent that keeps the memory alive.” Encouraging the children to draw on their faith provides a healthy outlet as well. “We believe in God and heaven and that we are going to see our family again. When Lisa was trying to get pregnant, she did in vitro fertilization which resulted in nine fertilized eggs. We always used to say that God let Grandpa up in heaven choose which children to send to us. Then the other day, one of the boys said, ‘Mom isn’t alone, she is in heaven with Grandpa and all of her other babies!’ This type of thinking helps a lot.”

A Rewarding Sense of Satisfaction and Purpose

While raising grandchildren can be a strain, it does have its upside. Studies have shown that custodial grandparenting can provide a rewarding sense of satisfaction and purpose. “God has been preparing me for this role all of my life,” said Collins, who spent much of her career as an ER nurse and then chair of Citrus College’s Health Science Department. “As an APU student, I went on service-learning missions trips, and I always thought I’d go back during my retirement. But, when my daughter was sick, I said, ‘Okay, my mission is Lisa,’ and now it’s clear to me that these kids are the next iteration of my mission.” While she never expected to be a parent a second time around, Collins wouldn’t give up the sorrow or joy of it. Four lives hang in the balance, and she, like many other grandparents thrust into similar situations, leaned into the grand art of parenting, whatever the cost.

Caitlin Gipson '01 is a freelance writer, search engine optimization specialist, and marketing consultant in Reedley, California.

Originally published in the Fall '10 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.