As of July 2015, there were more than 54,000 children in foster care in California, nearly 3,000 of those in San Diego County. Those numbers have gone down substantially over the last 10 years. Of those children, just more than 35% were placed with relatives in October 2015, the largest placement type. The goal is that 100% of children who cannot stay with their parents are placed with relatives because it causes less stress than placements with strangers, children move less and stay longer with relatives, and reunification with parents is more likely when children are placed with relatives. The 35% of relative caregivers represents sustained effort on the part of child welfare to place children in the least restrict and least traumatic environments. Since more children are being placed with relatives including grandparents, case managers have had to learn how to work with relative caregivers. Since more children are being placed with grandparents, more children are being adopted by their relatives or grandparents if they cannot be reunited with their parents. We can say that grandparents have been raising their grandkids formally and informally since forever, with or without the child welfare system. You may be the largest number of caregivers. But that does not keep you from feeling isolated or separated from the rest of society, even from other foster parents who may be younger or adopting for different reasons. That’s why developing and maintaining your connections to each other and this community is so important for you and the children you are parenting. The central issues we face on this journey include grief and loss, stage of life, parenting traumatized children, and developing a positive view of the future.
Grief and Loss
Grief and loss comes in many forms and from many places in raising our relatives. It is a subject that is difficult to discuss for many but one that we must address. No one is immune from grief and loss in this process; not you as a grandparent or relative caregiver taking in a child or children not born to you, not your children or the biological parents from whom the child was removed because of abuse, and certainly not your child who has lost both parents and homes but, like you, faces the adjustment to a different life with different parents. Starting with you, there’s the shock and sometimes denial of having the children you raised sidelined by mental illness, substance abuse, or domestic violence to the point that their children are injured and need to be removed for their protection. There’s the anger and guilt of having investigators and case managers asking questions about your family, challenging your parenting, and sometimes placing your grandchildren with strange foster parents in a system that is scary and confusing. There’s the sadness and even depression of parenting children who have had so much disruption and are not ready to appreciate you.
Then, there’s the denial and bargaining that biological parents experience in the removal of their children, the intervention of the court, and the guilt and shame of having to ask or allow or accept their parents caring for their children. That includes the anger and the grief of the conflict between you and your children. It’s a painful transition when you go from being parent and grandparent to a relative caregiver approved and supervised by the county and ultimately an adoptive parent to whom the court gives parental rights removed from your own child. That’s not a happy celebration. That’s an unhappy unplanned outcome. And we ignore this big sad fact at our own peril. Of all the issues that hit adoptive families, and especially grandparents adopting their grandchildren, grief and loss is the one that goes most unaddressed and results in the most conflict and pain. So, how do we face grief and loss head on? First, by acknowledging it, naming it, and talking about it. We need to address it just like a death in the family, because it is, the death of dreams. It’s so uncomfortable to admit, so we don’t. We need to mourn the loss of desired futures, of expected family roles, of changed relationships. It’s like a divorce and remarriage. We need a funeral, time to mark the transition, rituals to remember what we lost, and anniversaries of the same. There are any number of resources available to guide us through this process, books about grief and loss associated with adoption, ideas about celebrations and rituals to memorialize the events, and, of course, professional help and groups like this one.
Speaking of grief and loss, how about the loss of life plans? At the very time when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, when your dreams of sailing into the sunset of life are almost in site, when you are looking forward to more ME or WE time full of adventure and fun, you are yanked by the heartstrings, sometimes kicking and screaming, back to a previous stage of family life from which you had thought you graduated: raising children. Just when you thought you would have your home, your car, your TIME to yourself, you have to share them with these new people, the ones you used to visit on weekends or holidays then send back home. They’re staying and they won’t leave. And they bring stuff and people with them, clothes and shoes, teachers and social workers, laptops and I-phones, strange friends, awful music, pornography and video games. You did not sign up for this. But then you did, or felt you had to, out of a sense of commitment, guilt, love, responsibility, family. This brings its own shock or reality check. Your golden years may be filled with tennis shoes instead of cruises. Retirement may come with diapers, report cards, and skateboards. Or there may be no retirement at all as you continue to work to put food on the table or pay sports team fees. These off-time changes are financially and physically draining. Your body may be begging for rest, but the laundry and the carpool call. It can be exhausting and lonely and the last thing you may want to do is go out for wine with your girlfriends. First, because your bed is calling and second, because they like to talk about their gardening and needlepoint while you need someone to listen to your tails of ADHD and medication madness. You’ve done this already, raised children. But then again, the guilt, “if I did such a good job, why can’t my child raise his or her own kids.” And, “if they think I messed them up so bad that my kids turned to drugs and crime, what makes them think I can do any better with their children?” It also takes a toll on marriages and other relationships. You may not be on the same page with your spouse; about finances, about parenting, even about this new chapter in your life. This strange new life stage brings more complicated worries. “What if I get sick? What if I need care? What if I die before my children are grown? Who will raise them? I was already the last option before strangers.” Speaking of the bargaining phase of grief and loss, we may hope or want this to be a temporary situation. Our children will get their act together, come get their kids, and let me move on with my life. The kid hopes the same thing. It’s a dangerous dream. It keeps us from adjusting to reality. The role of grandparent is a real reward and losing that role while re-taking the role of parent is a real loss. What wisdom can you bring to this endeavor? At this age, you have developed some definite ideas about what’s right and wrong, what works and what doesn’t, what you like and what you don’t. I’ll talk in a minute about why that’s a slippery slope to conflict and unhappiness. But what you do have is life experience; dealing with difficult circumstances, diligently gathering necessary information, solving prickly problems, and most important, letting go. Letting go of perfection, letting go of total responsibility, letting go of people who are not supportive. A young strong body is not a prerequisite for good parenting. Patience, self-awareness, and a good sense of humor will take you much farther.
Parenting a hurt child can be challenging and sad. Abuse and neglect and moving from home to home does real damage. In addition to this trauma, our children may have other problems; learning disabilities, medical conditions, social issues. We may know our grandchildren very well. We were there when they were born. We took care of them or even parented them from time to time. Or, we don’t know them at all. Sometimes we weren’t even aware they were born, let alone taken into custody until we get the call from child welfare services asking us to take care of them. We think we know them. They share our genetics. They look like our kids. They remind us of our children. They may share personality characteristics that are familiar to us. Being with them is like a flashback to earlier times, either good or bad. If those earlier experiences were positive, it is a shock to find out the child is very angry with us, does not trust us, and is very willing to let us know. If those earlier times were negative, the child’s demanding, defiant, rejecting behaviors trigger us resulting in some very unpleasant interactions. We have the idea that since these children are our kin, they should love us, respect us, and trust us. But their experiences with their parents and other adults have shown them that adults are not safe and trusting them is a bad idea. That leaves grandparents trying to justify their existence to their grandchild, defending their role, proving their love, and responding to the extreme anger the child cannot possibly express directly to the people who hurt them the most. In response to guilt and sadness, grandparents may spend a lot of time trying to make up for lost time, going above and beyond to please the child, extra clothes, toys, trips, doing the grandparent thing when the child needs a parent the most. Parents have to be strong and structured, the one who says no, while most grandparents look forward to saying yes and letting the parents deal with the consequences. The child’s very pain makes us angry, a reminder of what went wrong, what was lost. And then in the teenage years, adolescence, when conflict is the order of the day this gap of not one but two generations really stands out. Younger parents may have the stamina to face the daily challenges to authority. The temptation for older parents may be to dig in, or give in, or give up. Is there hope? The first task is acknowledging that this is not the child we thought we knew, then carefully going back to the beginning to get to know the real child, to focus on the relationship from the very start. It really does require starting all over again.
Grandparents raising grandchildren stand out, raise eyebrows, raise questions that both grandparents and their children need to answer for themselves first. “What happened to us?” The interesting part of grandparents raising grandchildren is that elders are at that stage of life when making sense out of life and telling stories is the main focus and just what their children need. Raising grandchildren adds extra interesting chapters to this life narrative that only grandparents have the perspective to tell. Grandparents carry the culture and history of the family for generations, important parts of the child’s identity often lost in the foster care system. Grandparents are at the stage when the meaning of life comes into sharper focus and raising grandchildren redefines that meaning in a profound way. While writing the final chapters of their lives, grandparents are also creating lasting memories and passing those lessons onto the next generation. On the balance sheet of life, grandparents are an asset.