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Ain't Parenting Grand?

Suddenly Parents

WebMD Feature

June 4, 2001 -- A few weeks ago 3-year-old Ryan Butts celebrated a major accomplishment: He made a peanut butter sandwich by himself -- with no help from "Mom," who was watching from an arm's length away in their Mountain Home, Ark., kitchen. Geri Butts, 54, says witnessing that culinary feat was a special moment she would have missed if she and her husband David, 49, hadn't decided to become parents to their grandson, Ryan.

 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 3.9 million American children under the age of 18 live in 2.5 million households headed by grandparents. For about 1.4 million of those children, the only parental figure is a grandparent.

 

Nonetheless, Butts says many grandparents who find themselves "suddenly parents" are "still in the closet. They don't want to talk about the situation," she says.

 

Many of these grandparents are still dealing with issues involving their own children, says Butts. In her case, she says simply that Ryan's mother was "not mature enough to take on the responsibilities of being a mother." Geri and David have raised Ryan since he was 2 months old and have legal custody of the boy.

Resources Are Out There

Butts says she and other local "grand" parents now meet in a support group formed by the Baxter County Family Resource Center. Among the benefits offered by the support group is information sharing on about how to qualify for programs such as WIC or Medicaid, which may help with food and healthcare costs.

Probably one of the best resources for grandparents raising grandchildren is the AARP's Grandparent Information Center. Started in 1993, the center is run by Margaret Hollidge, who describes herself as "a grandmother who 'got stuck' with the sweetest, smartest grandson for 5 years."

In Hollidge's case, she headed a multigenerational household. "My 22-year-old daughter was pregnant and I found myself becoming a co-parent of her child," she says.

Hollidge's daughter and grandson are now on their own, she says, "but we are still very close and when my grandson comes to visit me for a weekend, he says, 'Gran, it is so nice to be home.' "

Difficult Issues to Deal With

Sister Elizabeth Mullane, director of positive caring services and medical services at St. Vincent's Services in New York, often grapples with the more the difficult aspects of grandparents as parents.

Many times a grandparent takes over parenting when "the parents cannot take on their responsibility because of a substance abuse problem or because [they] are in jail," she says. And in such cases, the grandparents are very likely to feel overwhelmed.

"Probably the most important service that we can then offer to both the grandparent and the grandchild is respite care," she says -- that is, short term, temporary care of the child to give the grandparent a break from the daily routine of caregiving. "Even taking over for a few hours can be a welcome and essential relief," she says.

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