When Grandparents Become Parents

Like thousands across Canada, I put my retirement on hold to raise my children’s children

Grandparent holding hand of child
iStock / kool99

A fair-haired girl in a pink sundress asks seven-year-old Jack, “Where do you go to school?” Jack and I are waiting in the checkout line at a Safeway in central Edmonton; the girl, accompanied by a woman about my age—in her sixties I’d say—is behind us. Jack blushes through his olive-brown cheeks and turns toward the display of candy bars and magazines. He’s naturally shy—even more so around girls his age.

I turn to the woman, who’s leaning on the handle of a grocery cart full of produce and pasta. “Do you live around here?” I ask. She glances at my bald crown, the curly grey hair jutting out around the temples of my wire-framed glasses, a faded purple Edmonton Folk Fest T-shirt from five years ago on my chest. She gives me a blank look. Maybe she wonders how to demonstrate to the girl that she should not talk to strange men. And I admit that I do look a little strange to some people, and sometimes, when I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning, even to myself.

“I’m Gary,” I say. “This is my grandson Jack. He’s going into grade two at Grandin school in August.” I nod toward the girl. “What school does she go to?”

When I say grandson, the woman’s eyes glisten. Maybe she thinks I’m not so strange after all. Or perhaps she realizes we’re both the same kind of strange. She tells me that they’re not from the neighbourhood, but they live not far away. She says she and her eight-year-old granddaughter live together. She tells me the name of her child’s school. As the checkout clerk takes my twenty-dollar bill, I say goodbye to the woman and the girl. They smile.

It’s been thirty years since my own kids were cute enough to break the ice with strangers at grocery stores, parks, or shopping centres. But now that I’m grandfathering two small children, this happens every day, everywhere I go. I’ve met grandparents with grandchildren in restaurants and on sidewalks. Reading my poems about grandparenting in public, I’ve had grandparents come up to me afterwards and say, “Me too!” Friends have told me about grandparents they know in situations like mine and offer to introduce me to them.

Grandparents are everywhere. That’s where we belong. But the grandparenting some of us do is the other side of the moon compared to the grandparenting we got when we were kids during the 1950s and ’60s. For us, a visit to Grandma and Grandpa was a treat if they lived nearby and a vacation trip to paradise if they didn’t. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t make us do stuff we didn’t want to, like eat broccoli or wash dishes. They didn’t discipline us or threaten to spank us when we did something bad. They played with us in the park. They bought us candy. They gave us toys and money, even when it wasn’t Christmas or a birthday. Most grandparents our age do grandparenting like that now. It’s an occasional, part-time break from retirement.

But the grandparenting I’m talking about is full-time mothering and fathering young children who would’ve ended up in foster care if we didn’t take them in. We raise the children as our own, but we raise them with thirty more years of life experience than when we raised children the first time. We raise them because somebody saw these kids being neglected or abused and phoned child welfare. We raise them because we saw parenting that had gone horribly wrong and we wanted to keep child welfare out of it. We raise them because their biological parents—our children—can’t or won’t, whether because of addiction, mental or physical illness, death, imprisonment, poverty, or marriage breakup.

We raise them while we nurse a wound deep in our hearts, because our child is out of the picture, because we fear for our child’s safety, because when the telephone rings we shudder: maybe this time it’s the police, and they’ve found our son or daughter dead from a self-inflicted wound or drug overdose. We raise these grandchildren even though we’re chronically sleep deprived. We wrestle every night with the voice inside our head that says, “Mike could be out in the snowstorm tonight, freezing to death.” We imagine Amanda prostituting herself for crystal meth or Mitchell burglarizing a pharmacy.

We walk or bus or drive these grandkids to school every day. We take them to soccer, hockey, music, dance, tae kwon do. We have more in common with the grandparents we sit next to at these events than with the parents, but we don’t belong to either group. We can’t socialize with retired friends because we have kids to parent every school day after 3 p.m., all day on weekends, on PD days, school holidays, and all summer. We get emergency calls from the school office, as parents do, and have to interrupt our days for our grandkids’ dental and medical appointments. But we’re thirty years older than the other parents. We grew up on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who—not Pearl Jam, the Stone Temple Pilots, or Britney Spears. We learned to read in phonics class, watched snowy black-and-white television images via rooftop antennas, and dialed clunky landline telephones to talk to friends on party lines. These cultural influences shaped our brains a long time ago, and those brains don’t work as fast now as when we were parents the first time.

We raise these grandkids because they’re ours; they’re members of our family, and we love them.

The manager of Kinship Care in Alberta told me that 1,400 kinship families in the province get government support of some kind. About 90 percent of these caregivers are grandparents. Betty Cornelius, president and founder of Cangrands National Kinship Support, told me Ontario officially has 22,000 kincare families—familes in which a relative takes primary responsibility for raising the child. But nobody knows how many grandparents are raising grandchildren informally and without government involvement. At the first kincare Christmas party I went to in Edmonton, I met a grandfather who claimed a million Canadian grandparents were raising grandchildren. The real story, though, isn’t statistics. It’s the individual grandparents and grandchildren who live together as a family unit, with all the struggle and delight that involves.

Extended family members have cared for children for millennia. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in caves or lean-tos stuck together in extended family and tribal groups against the threat of wolves, bears, and sabre-toothed tigers. Sharing responsibility for the tribe’s children was as natural as sharing food and fire. Today, it’s normal in places like China for grandparents to raise children when the mother and father both have to work. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa has challenged grandmothers more than ever to step up and raise untold millions of orphans. Kinship caregiving is a common cultural practice in Indigenous communities throughout the world, and it’s an honourable thing to do. But mainstream Western culture has attached a stigma to it: if a grandmother is raising a grandchild, the thinking goes, she must have failed as a parent—and here she is, doing it again! It’s part of our tradition of devaluing women of every age and of undervaluing elders too. In North America, systemic anti-Indigenous racism has for centuries included devaluing all aspects of Indigenous cultures. In Canada, we still grapple with the intergenerational trauma of the residential-school system, the racist, genocidal logic of which extended to the ’60s Scoop and which lives on in the disproportionate numbers of Indigenous children in our child-welfare systems today.

Developmental psychologist John Bowlby, author of a seminal book on broken childhood, says the practice, so prevalent in Western industrialized nations, of parents migrating for employment places severe pressure on those parents to go it alone, without a village of relatives to support them. He says, “In any analysis of the causes of children becoming deprived, therefore, it has to be considered not only why the natural home group has failed but also why relatives have failed to act as substitutes.” In the last twenty years, Western governments have offered varying degrees of financial support, encouragement, and training to extended family caregivers and even to teachers, coaches, and neighbours with whom the child has had a previous relationship.

Grandparents are by far the largest of these kinship groups. And yet many grandparents keep secret the fact that they are raising grandchildren. Some realize they need to be with others like themselves in order to feel normal again, to share experiences, and to cope with an ever-shifting torrent of difficulties. In the summer of 2012, I met thirty grandparents and seventy grandchildren at Camp Ignite, located in southern Ontario on the shore of Roblin Lake, next to historic Ameliasburgh. These grandparents gathered for the Cangrands summer camp to support each other, shed tears, and celebrate together.

While children splashed in the pool, played volleyball, shot baskets, and dug in sandboxes, I interviewed ten grandparents in the camp’s open areas, under the shade of 100-year-old ash trees. Occasionally, the children interrupted to ask Grandma or Grandpa a question or to get a kiss for an owie. Sometimes Grandma or Grandpa yelled across the field for a child to behave. Even in this idyllic summer setting, none of us had the luxury of peace, quiet, and solitude; this was not a Caribbean resort or a seniors’ recreation centre.

I got to know many of my peers at Camp Ignite, other grandparents who raise grandchildren, who help them heal profound psychological and physical wounds and thereby make a better future for these children, their families, and the world. These grandparents are heroes. At great risk to themselves, they go into battle with social workers, judges, lawyers, and even their own sons and daughters to protect and nurture vulnerable grandchildren. Here are snapshots of a few of them.

Victoria is seventy-four years old and lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. She’s raised her great-granddaughter for the last ten years, and now she also cares for her recently retired husband, who has Alzheimer’s. On October 8, 2002, she took in her granddaughter’s five-day-old baby, who was born an alcoholic and now has serious brain damage due to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD.

Lucy lives in Montreal with two granddaughters, twelve and fourteen. She’s had them since they were born, when she was fifty years old. Her son, her only child, is their father. He’s addicted to drugs and alcohol. He drops by to visit once a year and then promptly disappears again. The mother has been addicted to heroin since she was seventeen, and Lucy is surprised whenever she hears the mother is still alive. Every year when the parents’ birthdays come around, Lucy and the girls sing happy birthday to the pictures of them that hang on the wall. The girls ask her, “Do you think we’ll ever see Mom before she dies?”

Don jokes about his ongoing battle with pancreatitis. “I should’ve died thirty years ago!” he says. When he has the energy, his inner schoolteacher surfaces. He commands the attention of over 100 people in Camp Ignite’s large cafeteria, his booming voice loud enough to drown out clinking cutlery and giggling children. But he has to take naps and medication every day to keep going. He and his wife, Cassie, care for an eight-year-old granddaughter full-time. The girl’s mother has bipolar disorder and used to be heavily into ecstasy. Cassie and Don are retired teachers who spent $20,000 in a custody battle with the mother; they doubt that Caribbean cruises will be in their future, but they say they’re so happy living with their grandchild that a mere cruise would be a step down for them.

Julie’s stepdaughter was twenty-seven when she got pregnant. For the first year, the baby was back and forth between her parents’ home and Julie’s. Julie said the parents were addicts who frequently beat each other up and trashed their home in the process. Julie and her husband spent a fortune battling the birth parents’ legal aid lawyers to get custody. The stepdaughter brags about her daughter on her Facebook page and likes to be called Mommy. When the stepdaughter comes for a rare visit, she gives her child a doll. Julie says that’s the extent of her interest in mothering.

Chris lives in a midsize Ontario city with his extended Indigenous family. He jokes that he and his wife have taken in more than 100 kids over the years. He says they have fourteen or more people sleeping over at their house some nights—so many that he sometimes has to sleep on the floor. He and his wife recently adopted seven-year-old twins who were daughters of his wife’s cousin. “Now they’re my daughters,” he laughs. “But, realistically, I think we count them as third cousins.” He was in his early fifties when children’s services told him he was too old to take the girls in; he and his wife convinced them to change their minds. Now Chris and his wife are educating themselves about FASD. They got the twins diagnosed, but now he needs to develop strategies to work with them. He’s determined to educate his community about the long-term effects of drinking during pregnancy.

Betty Cornelius, the president and founder of Cangrands, tells me that 95 percent of the kids associated with Cangrands have FASD, ADHD, ODD (Oppositional defiant disorder), or some other disability. She laughs, “And the other 5 percent of the grandparents are delusional and think their kids don’t have any of these things!” Once the children are diagnosed, grandparents can get financial help and other support. Getting that diagnosis, though, can be as tough as climbing a cliff with a child on your back, and it costs thousands of dollars. But governments are tight fisted and often withhold information about programs for which grandchildren might be eligible.

At the Cangrands camp, a normal family group is one grandmother and up to five grandkids. Four grandfathers are there with partners and one or two more drop in and out during the five-day event. At the end of the week, Betty Cornelius asks each of the grandparents to express a wish for the group. My wish is that more grandfathers get involved in the children’s lives. My other wish is that grandparents in hiding will set their shame aside and take pride in the love they give their grandchildren every day.

But before we go any further, I have a confession to make. At the outset, I said Jack is my grandson, but he’s technically a stepgrandson: he and his sister are my partner’s grandchildren. I’ve had a relationship with them both for nearly as long as I’ve had a relationship with their grandmother. But the more I get into the culture of kincare, foster care, adoption, traumatic-attachment groups, and the like, the more I realize the labels we use to identify our roles are inadequate at best. I have three grandchildren by my own three biological children. I am functionally the father of the two I’m raising, but they have a hard time calling me Dad, even when they give me cards on Father’s Day. If I were their dad, would that make them brother and sister to my own three children? If so, that would make them the aunt and uncle to my biological grandchildren. If we adopted them, would that make them brother and sister to their own biological father? We tell the kids they have two sets of parents: the ones they were born to and us. For us, the important thing is our relationship with these children now, not who conceived them.

A few years ago, a friend I went to high school with in the 1960s and hadn’t talked with much for thirty years asked me why I decided to help raise two grandkids that weren’t mine. I said, “I’ve got nothing better to do.” What could be better than living with the woman I love and helping her raise two grandchildren? If I’d found a woman to love who had no grandchildren in the house, of course that would have been good too. But I didn’t. In fact, the woman I love didn’t have any grandchildren when our relationship started; she acquired them a little later. When I saw how much she loved them and what she was giving up to take them in, I loved her even more.

If I’d had the chance to be thirty-five years old again instead of sixty-five, I might have taken it. That wasn’t one of the options. But being around a six-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy is a good way to get back some of the youthful exuberance that my body had forgotten. Being in love helps me feel young again too. That it involves loving two kids and coaching them as they learn to read, write, skate, play soccer and hockey, ride bicycles, play violin, and dance is a bonus.

In the 1950s, when I was their age, I saw television ads that plugged Geritol, an iron supplement for older people. They claimed older people had low energy because of “tired blood,” and Geritol would fix it. I’m in my middle sixties, and my blood often feels tired. So do my brain, my muscles, my eyes, and my ears. That all changes when I engage with a child many decades younger. Since I’m raising two of them, I get regular doses of something more effective than Geritol countless times every day. Of course, my blood does get plenty tired every evening when the kids are in bed and their grandmother and I finally have some free time.

Households like ours—headed by the grandparents with grandchildren present and the middle generation missing—are commonly called “skipped-generation families.” The number of such households is growing. People may think that our family setup is a little strange, but when I’m out with my partner and our two grandkids, it’s clear that we are part of the new normal in parenting. And, indeed, we are a living reminder of extended-family units that have been around since our ancestors started walking upright and developed opposable thumbs.

None of us is a skipped-generation grandparent because we consciously decided our grandchildren were essential to the survival of the species. We took on the job out of love for them. My first encounter with a group of grandparents raising grandchildren was the Cangrands camp-out in 2012. Nobody there had to tell me they were doing it for love; their actions shouted it loud and clear.

From the book Raising Grandkids: Inside Skipped-Generation Families by Gary Garrison, copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of University of Regina Press.

Gary Garrison
Gary Garrison worked for the Mennonite Central Committee for almost a decade, coordinating visiting programs at in maximum security prisons. With a PhD in English from the University of Alberta, he is a journalist and the former editor of Alberta Hansard. He lives in Edmonton.