“No one expects to spend their retirement raising a child,” said Barb, a former teacher. “It changes everything. Your life is turned upside down.” But she’s not complaining. Sure, she can’t travel as much as she’d hoped to, and she has no social life; all activities revolve around Avery, now 8, and the other kids’ mothers aren’t really friend material for Barb. But she gets great joy from being with her granddaughter. “I really think of her as my third child,” she told me. This time around, though, “I have learned not to sweat the small stuff,” she said. She doesn’t stress out about Avery’s test scores, or about the “little-girl drama” of third-grade cliques. Instead, she focuses on giving Avery love, stability, and the skills to fight her own battles.
More grandparents than ever are being put in a position like Barb and Fran—becoming full-time parents again, often with fewer resources and more health problems than they had the first time around. The arrangement is not new, of course—people raised by grandparents for at least part of their childhood include Maya Angelou, Carol Burnett, and two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—but it’s more common than ever these days. (The Greek god Zeus was raised by his grandmother, too, though that was really the least she could do: Her son, Cronus, threatened to swallow the child whole.) The proportion of children living in “grandfamilies” has doubled in the U.S. since 1970, and has gone up 7 percent in the past five years alone—an increase many attribute to the opioid epidemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 3 percent of children nationwide live apart from their parents, and of those, nearly two-thirds are being raised by grandparents. Some 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, either because of a temporary change in circumstance for the parents, such as military deployment or joblessness, or something more lasting and terrible: mental illness, divorce, incarceration, death, or, as in Barb and Fran’s case, substance abuse.
Raising grandchildren can take a toll on grandparents: higher-than-normal rates of depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health problems like hypertension and diabetes; feelings of exhaustion, loneliness, and isolation; a sense of having too little privacy, and too little time to spend with their spouses, friends, and other family members. There’s a disproportionately high rate of poverty among grandparents raising grandchildren, and more than 40 percent report having economic or social-service needs—for themselves or, more often, their grandchildren—that are unmet.
The grandparents might be struggling with complicated feelings about their own child’s shortcomings as a parent, too, which stirs up an unsettling mixture of disappointment, embarrassment, anger, and resentment. They might be grieving for a child who either died or simply walked away, and for the vision they once had of a simple, ordinary, fun-with-the-grandkids kind of grandparenthood.