Updated: Oct 28
"I've been to this rodeo before, and I'm a lot wiser this time around.", said Pennsylvania grandmother Kellie W. who is one of the thousands of grandparents around the country raising their grandchildren. There are a large number of reasons why a child would find themselves being raised by their grandparents; and with the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation these numbers just keep going up. Raising a child is a blessing but it is also causing these grandparents to attend their second rounds of soccer practice and chorus concerts while their friends and coworkers are traveling the world and enjoying the retirement they have been preparing for their whole lives. PA Parent and Family Alliance sat down with Kellie to discuss what it's like to raise her grandchild and why grandfamilies need the recognition and support that would be offered by Senator Bob Casey's Grandfamilies Act.
Check out our Tip Sheet that details how providers can make grandfamilies feel welcomed and understood.
Kellie raised two daughters as a single mother. Her daughters are now ages 31 and 23 and it is her eldest daughter's (Rachel) child that Kellie is raising. She explained to PA Parent and Family Alliance that it is currently, and has always been in her grandson's best interest to be in her custody. Kellie's daughter has suffered from mental health difficulties since a child, and more recently substance abuse disorder. Rachel and the child's father were doing what Kellie called "the bare minimum to keep the child alive; leaving him in dirty playpens with no toys, strapping the baby to a changing table, and creating an overall unsafe environment for him.
This is when Kellie decided to go to get her child, and her grandchild out of the toxic environment. She moved them both into her house but it soon became apparent that her daughter was getting mixed up with the wrong crowd again. Rachel would leave the house and go on "walks" and not return for what started like a day or two but eventually stretched into weeks at a time. After two weeks of being gone without a warning or checking in on her son or mother, she returned to Kellie's house. At this point, Kellie was fed up with her daughter's behavior and told her to go back to her house and leave her son.
While Kellie achieved a deep sense of relief that her grandson was finally in a safe and healthy environment; anxiety soon set in about how she was going to afford to raise a child. She lived on a single income and had a full-time job that prevented her from being able to watch a baby throughout the workweek. Kellie was forced to turn to childcare, which comes at an incredibly high price. The trauma of his childhood had caught up to him and he started to develop crippling anxiety and behavioral issues. Kellie was constantly getting calls to come to pick up her grandson because he was misbehaving and in some cases, he would be so worked up he would just stand in the middle of the classroom and scream until they called Kellie.
She has since placed him in a (not cheap) private school that offers him the emotional support and patience that his other schools never have. He is thriving and growing at rates that Kellie is incredibly proud of. In order to obtain this kind of education for him, Kellie has begun to dip into her 401K and in a never ending cycle of taking money out, and getting penalized for it, she has drained any money she was saving for retirement. Although she has been a single mother since the age of 23 she has worked hard to set herself upright for a relaxing and much-deserved retirement but a wrench has been thrown into those plans.
Her friends are enjoying their lives traveling the world merely face-timing their adult children, and grandchildren, while Kellie is right back in the trenches of raising a child. She explained how hard it was to not have the kind of spontaneity that other people her age do. Her friends will often make last-minute decisions to go away for the weekend or meet for drinks downtown, but Kellie cannot make a change of plans without arranging a babysitter." Anything I want to do I have to make sure it is within the availability of babysitters that I know and pay them at least 10 dollars an hour; whether it be a work event or a casual dinner with friends I have to instantly tack on about 40 bucks.". Dating is also nearly impossible for Kellie because of this lack of spontaneity. Men Kellie's age who are single and looking for a mate are often looking for someone who wants to travel the world with them and do all the things they never had time to do before they retired, but Kellie obviously cannot. Kellie told us how important for her it was to emphasize this hardship. She went on to say that many people will not discuss the "selfish aspect" of how tough it is and she wants other grandparents to know that she feels it too and that it's not selfish to want to enjoy "your golden years".
While things may get a little tough Kellie wanted to remind us that she wouldn't change things if she had the chance. "I am the one constant for that little boy who has been and will always be there for him and I adore my grandson". She knows that taking him in was the absolute right call to make to set him up for a happy and successful life and she doesn't know where he would be if it wasn't for her. She has made it a point to focus on her grandson's mental health more than anything. If she can ensure that he is mentally taken care of and happy she knows the rest will fall into place. It is Kellie's top priority is to raise a boy who is grateful for what he has, and just deep down a kind human being, in the end, nothing else really matters.
This time around Kellie is not sweating the small stuff and has observed that she is not "a helicopter mom" as she once was, and sees many new moms be. While the fundamentals of her parenting style have remained the same she said the things she used to get upset about don't really bother her anymore. She knows that she can't do it all and be the perfect mother, and she doesn't have the time or energy to worry about it. This was, in fact, one of her biggest pieces of advice for a grandparent raising their grandchild. She wanted to remind them that you cannot do it all, and that's perfectly fine. This time around Kellie is not scared to ask for help. She has set up a group of friends that love and are loved by her grandson who are willing to help them. "It truly does take a village, and I am glad I realized that.
While advice on parenting, as a grandparent, is important we wanted to know what Kellie would tell a grandparent who is in those very beginning steps of taking over raising their grandchild. Her biggest piece of advice was to find a support group or call an organization like Allegheny Family Network. She wishes that she had known about programs like this when she was obtaining custody because she thinks its essential for these grandparents to understand their rights, especially because these rights, currently, are very limited. Kellie would advise these grandparents to seek emergency custody right away, and get that grandchild safely into your home. Kellie wanted to emphasize that these grandparents should not feel alone and they should be prepared for a potentially very bumpy ride. This process can get very emotional and very messy but remember that your grandchild's safety is the most important thing and everything else can be handled after that.
Kellie is very thankful for the work that Senator Casey has put into supporting grandfamilies. She knows how tough her road has been and how many sacrifices she has made to ensure the safety and success of her grandchild and she appreciates Casey for advocating for these families to get monetary and legal support. She is a strong believer in the PA Parent and Family Alliance message that families come in all shapes and sizes and all of them are worthy of getting help. When asked what her biggest lesson was from raising her grandson she said simply; "I am capable of handling so much more stress than I ever imagined." If you or someone you know is embarking on taking over custody of your grandchild remember that you are not alone, you are worthy of asking for and receiving help, and you are an absolute blessing to that grandchild.
To read more on the logistics of Casey's Grandfamilies Act and how it could impact your family click here to see our blog post that breaks it down.
Are you having trouble advocating for your child/grandchild, or even knowing where to start? Reach out to one of our free and confidential Family Support Partners at 888-273-2361 or online here.