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One Grand family’s Story: How grandparents become parents to their grandchildren

Published by Jan Zecca

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When Blessings Overflow

Lynn is a 51 year old South African happily married to a man of 55. Both are pensioners, which is like U.S. Social Security disability payment, due to ill health. Lynn suffers from Addison’s Disease and problems with her arms and legs, her husband has a brain degenerating disease and nocturnal epilepsy. She has three children of her own. She also has a 20 month-old grandson who lives with them on a permanent basis.

When Lynn’s daughter, Kay, was in her final year at school she told her mother she was five months pregnant. Kay was not in a committed relationship. When she told Michael, the father of the baby, about her pregnancy he was honest with her from the beginning, Lynn says. He made it clear he was not ready for this responsibility, and had no intention of being forced in to anything. They were both only 19 at the time. The young man said he still had a lot to do with his life. It’s a shame he didn’t consider that before helping create a child.

However, Kay was very excited. Michael suggested he would pay for an abortion but Kay was adamant. She wanted her baby. As it was near the end of the year, her school allowed her to take her finals to finish the year. At end of March 2005, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy and was an excellent mother from the start. She doted on the boy and he bonded to her. It looked like a success and a happily-ever-after.

Reality Sets In

But for a teen age mother, things can change quickly and things did change for Kay and Baby. And for Lynn and her husband. When Baby was 7 months old, Kay went to Lynn.

“I’m starting to resent him. He’s holding me back from the life I should have. I’m entitled to my own space,” she said. “Who knew this would take it all away?”

Kay began to put separation between her and Baby. Lynn says Kay would palm him off on anybody willing to take him away from her for any amount of time. Baby ended up living more and more with Lynn and her husband, spending less time with his mom. Kay moved out of the home when Baby was seven months old and moved in with her boyfriend, Luke.

“In my eyes,” Lynn says, “my daughter chose the boyfriend above her child.” Lynn feels hurt, angry and anxious. She worries about the responsibility of raising a baby at her age and in her condition.

A little backstory now–before the baby was born, midway through the pregnancy, Kay had met a guy on holiday and they became very good friends. She was obviously pregnant, shy and reluctant to parade around the beach like other girls her age. The new guy, Luke, spent most days with her, keeping her company. They hung out with a group of about 10 and he didn’t want to leave her to entertain herself as the others enjoyed their vacation. Luke knew perfectly well Kay was pregnant. He told her it wasn’t an issue for him. They were just friends, anyway.

How the Baby Changed Hands

Of course, things escalated and they were eventually intimately involved. That’s where Lynn thinks the drama took root. Kay has reconnected with the young man and they spend all their time together. He has absolutely no time for the little one.

Kay visits Lynn and Baby on Thursdays for a couple of hours, and Luke only comes by to pick Kay up after the visit. Oddly, he’ll only come by if Baby is sleeping.

When Kay moved out of her mother’s house, she wanted Lynn to adopt Baby. She said she wanted nothing more to do with the child. But concern for their age, and health, along with lack of information about legal issues, caused Lynn and her husband to seek another solution.

They encouraged Kay to turn over legal custodianship of the boy. Legally, Lynn says, Kay is still his mother and can reclaim him and take him away whenever she wants. A bad situation for both the child and the grandparents as they bond into a secure family and the child develops peripheral relationships. Kay’s distance from her son, not physical distance, but emotional distance, will ultimately cause issues, too, especially if she ever exercises her parental rights.

How Do You Cope?

Lynn, like tens of thousands of custodial grandparents worries about these questions, and is seeking real answers:

  1. Is everyone involved doing what is in the best interest of the child–or should Kay be forced to take responsibility for Baby while he is still an infant? Lynn thinks he has gone through enough trauma in his short life already. She says she couldn’t abide any more hurt being dished out to this child.
  2. What happens to him if his grandparents are not able to care for him and his mother still does not want him back?
  3. Is it harmful to Baby to have his mother visit for a few hours once a week and ignore him the rest of the time?
  4. Does Baby understand Kay is his mother, and should she decide to take him back what would the repercussions be?
  5. What sort of trauma are his guardians going to go through if mom comes back to claim him? This child is the love of their lives now–they can’t imagine not having him around.

Fortunately, both sets of Baby’s grandparents have accepted him with an enormous amount of love and devotion. He spends every other weekend with his paternal grandparents and it’s a mutual admiration society there. His father sees Baby occasionally on those visits, but does not show much interest, according to Lynn.

Kay and Baby’s dad are both 21 now. Baby is two. There are so many grandfamilies going through this same kind of anxiety and help is not easy to find. Once found, it can be quite expensive. Several US states are taking a proactive stance to create programs for grandfamilies. You’re encouraged to explore your state’s policies and resources. In other countries, there may also be good resources.

If you have experience in issues like these, please begin a discussion on this topic and share what you’ve learned. This is so important to the healthy development of our children.

Here’s some advice from Family Education:

● Get prompt legal advice about custody and financial planning. Expect that you may have to consult with more than one attorney.

● Look for a “grandparents as parents” support group. Check with local hospitals and social service agencies to find meeting times.

● Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Ask a friend or relative to baby-sit so you can steal away to the movies or cards at a neighbor’s.

● Keep open communication with your own child, if possible. At some point, the issues that led him or her to surrender custody may be resolved. The prospect of regaining custody may be a motivator for those struggling with drug or financial problems. If seeing a parent is upsetting to children, try to keep in touch through cards, the phone, or email.

● I’d add to that, be sure you formalize any custody agreements, casual contracts just don’t work.

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