Tradition Isn’t the Point

I’m so thankful this year for the progress Mary Ellen is making. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be for a child to be yanked out of her home and deposited somewhere else. She must have felt so much anger and confusion and grief. I’m not saying those feelings have all been replaced on a permanent basis by joy and self-confidence, but the scale has certainly tipped in their favor. I’m thankful to her grandparents—all of them—for loving her and staying in her life. I am especially thankful to my husband, her Papa, for being our rock. And for doing the laundry. I’m thankful for the teachers and school principal who have encouraged her learning and given her the assurance that she can accomplish her dreams. I’m thankful to her parents for trusting us with her while they prepare to be the parents they want to be, and that I know they can be. It does take a village.

But this Thanksgiving, I’m also thinking about differences. There is no longer anyone in my family who enjoys sitting down together at a big meal, so it will just be the three of us today. We each chose a dish that we wanted, none of which would have been on the table when I was Mary Ellen’s age. She’s making dessert–turkeys made with cookies, chocolate chips, yellow and white icing and bananas.

Annual meals way back when were bountiful and always the same. I don’t miss the cooking, except for one dish: Granny’s cornbread dressing. When she got on up in years, I asked her to give me her recipe. Of course, she didn’t have one, but I wrote down exactly what she said. I can hear her talking to me as I read it. I wonder if Mary Ellen will remember something special that she and I share, and if so, what it will be. Memories of childhood should be happy. I think part of our job is to be sure that at least some of hers are.

Since I can’t share the dressing with family this year, I’ll share my memory and the recipe with you—exactly as it was dictated.

Scrumble light bread and corn bread in a crock (about 1/3 and 2/3). Soak in hot water, a cup or so. Beat 2 eggs more or less. Chop onion and celery up fine together. Take bacon and fry real crisp. Crumble it all up. Add just small amount of dripping from the bacon. Salt and pepper. Taste. I hate that part. Put in a little shallot and celery top. Cook about 1 hour 350⁰-400⁰ When just wet with water, add 3-4 cups? stock. Get it real moist.

I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving, whatever yours may look like.

When Can I Go Home?

Kathie Campbell Greer, custodial grandparent, counselor, writer has provided us with another great blog.

Grandparents raising their grandchildren face a multitude of challenges. In almost every case, it is a choice–and often a sacrifice–the grandparents have made in the best interest of the child.

All of the circumstances are unique to the family unit involved. Sometimes drug or alcohol abuse are the precipitating factor. In other cases the tragic death of one or both parents turns the family upside down. There are horrendous situations involving neglect or abandonment.

But regardless of the reason, commonalities do exist. The most significant may be grief. Very often any change in a child’s living arrangements can be a sad experience. The familiarity and perceived safety of a bedroom, the loss of friends, leaving a trusted teacher and a familiar school can all trigger a sense of profound sadness. That grief is difficult for children to understand and process, even when their parents make the move with them. But when the parents are part of what must be left behind, confusion is compounded and grief can be overwhelming. And while grandparents are helping their grandchildren adjust, they may be dealing with their own grief.

Denial has been established and documented as one of the stages of grief, and it’s an easy trap for custodial grandparents to step into. Much too often we don’t want to acknowledge the harsh realities that have brought our grandchildren to live in our homes. The children often create idolized versions of their parents. They certainly don’t want to hear or see hard truths about their parents. So sometimes it feels better to hold onto fantasies and pretend. The make-believe stories can be as varied as the children and adults who create them.

But a day of reckoning invariably arrives. It often begins with the question, “When can I go home?”

When Z first asked that question he’d been living with me more than three years. I felt like I had created a good, stable home for him. The question devastated me. His dismissal of our house as “home” landed on me like the mortar and bricks of a building that’s foundations had failed.

Z’s mother–my daughter–had neglected him. Worse than that, she had abandoned him on multiple occasions. The harsh reality was that he couldn’t go back to her, because she didn’t want him.

How on earth do you convey that horrible truth to a young boy without destroying him?

I’m not sure it can be done, or even that the path I chose was the best one. We talked about his mother’s mental illness. We talked about the limitations it placed on her. I shared my hope that someday she would get better. I did my best not to lie to him. And I repeatedly stressed my love for him and the things that made us a family and my house a home.

As he got older, Z began to see and understand the realities that had factored into his life. He came to a place close to acceptance, and he retained his love for his mother. But the wounds were deep and even though he’s an adult now, traces of the scars remain.

We can provide them with a safe and happy place to live, and we can bind their wounds to the best of our ability. But we must remember that we can never completely erase their grief. We can only nurture, encourage and support them with our love as they work through it.

 

We Lost!

A lot of kids love sports, Mary Ellen included. I’m glad she does. Kids can learn a lot from sports—teamwork, perseverance, setting goals and working toward them, how to lose, how to win, how to get up and keep going when you’re hurt. Sports, of course, aren’t the only avenue for these lessons. Band, orchestra, choir, and drama come to mind as good teachers for many of these skills.

And sports have some drawbacks. Have you read Beartown by Fredrik Backman? But parents, and others, can put unacceptable expectations on children in a lot of ways. So, we’ll concentrate on the positives.

Mary Ellen has played basketball, soccer, and volleyball. She liked basketball, loves soccer, and played volleyball at too young of an age. When the ball doesn’t get over the net more than twice in a serve, the excitement of the game wanes. So she signs up for every soccer season.

She’s a good player—plays hard, runs fast, wants to win. Last weekend, her team lost to worst team in the league. Aargh! Gnashing of teeth. “I played awful. The coach is mad at us!” Tears. “She said we didn’t work together.” Ah ha!

I admit that my reflex parenting action on this one took its good time kicking in. To sympathize, coddle, console, make excuses? I waited a while.

At bedtime, I told Mary Ellen I was proud of her for being upset that they lost to the worst team in the league. And, that if she wanted to continue to play sports, she needed to get used to coaches who yell when the team plays badly. I also told her that the only solution was to identify the problem, fix it, and try again.

I decided that was the first lesson that needed to be learned, and the one that goes “even great players have bad games, forgive yourself” will have to wait. Its time will come.

As my friend, Jodi Thomas, says. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out.” There’s a lesson in all of them.

Here’s hoping that when the time comes, I find the right words to teach them.

If you have stories of lessons learned from sports, please share them.

 

We Are Not Normal!

Another excellent post by blogger Kathie Campbell Greer. Look for her book, Sliding for Home, coming soon. It is written for readers in grades 4-7 and will be published by Yellow City Publishing.

My husband and I divorced when our daughters were preschoolers, so when Z came to live with me I was familiar with the challenges of being a single parent. But that experience didn’t fully translate to being a single custodial grandparent.

Divorced parents were common among my daughters’ friends and mine. I developed a network with other single mothers to share babysitting and play dates. We built solid, supportive friendships and our shared experiences sustained us through the tough times.

According to Elder Options of Texas, more than six million children – approximately 1 in 12 – are living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives. I knew I was not alone.

My friends provided ample support.

But Z didn’t have that. One other boy at his school lived with his grandparents. He and Z played sports together and became close friends. On weekends they would spend the night together at our house or his friend’s. I became acquainted with the grandparents, and we communicated often about the boys and the challenges their circumstances presented.

But they were a couple, and the grandfather was actively involved. There was also a younger sister and two dogs. From a distance, they looked like a normal family. We didn’t. And it bothered Z a lot.

“We aren’t normal,” he said one evening during dinner.

“What does normal look like?” I asked him.

He gave it some thought before answering. “It looks like a regular family.”

“Okay, what does a regular family look like?” I held my breath, fully expecting for him to jump on an endless merry-go-round by telling me “normal.”

He didn’t, but his reply was almost worse. “It’s a family with two parents.”

My heart sank, because between my professional life and my devotion to Z, there was no time for dating. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in another full-time relationship. At the same time, though, I wanted Z to see his life as normal. I felt like a fish trapped in an inescapable net.

Z and I talked a lot about “normal” over the following days and weeks. How do you explain to a child that it’s not a blanket term? How do you help them relate to being outside the box in the most positive way possible?

Superheroes became my unlikely allies. Batman was in orphan, essentially raised by a grandfatherly butler. He didn’t have a normal family, but he became a hero.

I made a significant investment in superhero action figures to supplement our discussions, but it paid off. Z finally became convinced that, although it didn’t look normal, we were a solid family unit. More importantly he discovered that he had the power in his own hands to create an amazing future for himself.

 

 

 

Do You Really Want Me?

Another great post by Kathie Campbell Greer–author, counselor, custodial grandparent. This one made my heart hurt.

It was my 50th birthday. I answered the doorbell to find my younger daughter, and her second son. Blonde, blue-eyed, he was wearing a cap, shorts, a t-shirt and carrying a small backpack.

My daughter, not yet diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was frantic and emotional. “I’ve tried, Mom, but I just can’t deal with him. His dad can’t take him. If you don’t want him, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The words squeezed my heart, sending a lump to my throat. I pushed aside the emotion that threatened to overcome me as I looked at my grandson. He’d seen and heard more than enough of that in his short eight years on this earth.

The boy’s domicile had changed more than a dozen times. The face of his primary caretaker had changed only slightly less. The counselor, whose sessions I paid for, had told me that there was no bond between my daughter and her son. Even worse, the constant changes had resulted in Z’s development of an attachment disorder.

But there he stood: a bright, innocent child who—for all practical purposes—was facing the world alone.

“Yes,” I said. “I want him. But this is his final stop.” And before the day’s end I had papers signed and notarized by both parents naming me as custodial guardian.

My life and Z’s changed that day. He was my new priority. I was at every school and recreational activity. We made meals together, shared chores and we talked. But when it came to affection, he wanted none of it.

Several months passed, and we settled into a routine. One afternoon when I picked him up after school he seemed unusually quiet. After a few failed attempts to get him to talk, I gave up.

We were through the front door and I was almost into the next room when he finally spoke. “Did you mean what you said,” he asked.

I stopped, slightly panicked. “I always try to mean what I say. Can you tell me what I said that you’re wondering about?”

“The day you said you wanted me. Did you mean it?”

Tears filled my eyes before I could halt them. “Yes. Beyond any doubt I wanted you then and I want you now.”

He ran toward me so fast that I was frightened, but the arms that locked me in a tight hug brought immediate relief. We cried, I covered him with kisses and we both laughed.

That day was a breakthrough–for both of us. I felt truly encouraged for the first time since he’d come to live with me. For him, the fears and worries he’d brought with him began to evaporate.

No, all the difficulties didn’t disappear. But we had a solid foundation of love that we could build upon.

Sometimes breakthroughs with grandchildren are huge, and sometimes so small they might be missed. But all of them are important to the children entrusted to our care. Celebrate every one of them.

If you or someone you know is interested in writing for Grandparents Chat Forum, please contact me at vickischoen@outlook.com

 

Walking a Tightrope

 

Kathie Campbell Greer is a professional writer with a master’s degree in counseling. She has done research on the topic of grandparents as custodial caretakers and presented to Texas Association of Counselors. She was the custodial caretaker for her grandson from the time he was eight-year-old until he was out of high school.

The most difficult challenge faced by grandparents caring full-time for grandchildren is maintaining their balance.

Most grandparents look forward to spending uncomplicated time with grandchildren. It’s an unspoken agreement that rules can usually be broken at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Grandparents have already done hard time as overseer of homework, hygiene and manners with their own children. The disciplinarian duties can be cast aside by typical grandparents, in favor of childish conspiracies and shared secrets.

But those fanciful dreams of being an incredible grandparent must take a backseat when a grandchild comes to live with them. Grandparents must walk a tricky tightrope between the relationship they want to have with their grandkids and the one they need to have.

The circumstances that require grandparents to become custodial caretakers are seldom positive. For whatever reason–and there many: drug abuse, mental illness, incarceration, divorce, death, a parent’s loss of employment, sexual abuse, abandonment and neglect to name just a few–the child is no longer in a place of safety. It usually doesn’t feel like an issue of choice for grandparents, but one of absolute necessity.

The transitions are tough. The most amazing and loved grandparents may suddenly be viewed as the villain by kids who don’t understand why they can’t be with their parent(s).

Z was only eight-years-old when he came to live with me. He drove the point home at dinner one night.
“Grammy, you used to be the best grandmother in the world.” I was about to bask in the warm glow of his affection when he finished his thought, “But as a parent you just suck.”

They were among the hardest words I’ve ever heard. And every part of my heart wanted to retain that title of “best grandmother.” My brain, though, focused on the undeniable fact that I was now required to be the parent. It was now my job to draw the boundaries, make the rules, assign chores, check homework and be sure showers were taken and teeth were brushed.

There was still time for reading stories, learning new games and having adventures, but they could no longer be done with the joyful abandonment that comes from knowing that time together is short and therefore more special.

The balancing act for grandparents who care for grandchildren full-time also requires balancing the harsh truth of the situation against the child’s sometimes fantasized view of the parents. That’s especially tough when grandparents want to assume the blame for the shortcomings of their adult children.

The thing that must be remembered is that those adult children made their own decisions, and when those choices put their children in danger, grandparents are not the villains. They are more like heroes working without a net.

If you would like to write a blog for the site, contact me at vickischoen@outlook.com.

Adventure With A Baby Bird

When I picked Mary Ellen up at school last Friday, she approached me with the face all parents have seen—hands folded in prayer, eyes heavenward, and lips silently mouthing, “Please, please, please.”

Long story short. Her class found a baby bird on the playground and brought it into the classroom. They made a nest of shredded colored paper and cut the bottoms off two paper cups for water and bird seed. (It’s amazing to me what items can be found in a second-grade classroom.) The bird, of course, couldn’t be left in the school over the weekend.

We have a cat. We live in an area where wild animals (and the neighbor’s cat) roam our property. I told her it wouldn’t work. She explained exactly where we could locate the bird so our cat couldn’t get to it.

Well, maybe.

I know nothing about taking care of baby birds.

Mary Ellen and her mother had nursed one back to health.

I capitulated. Her teacher rejoiced.

As we took the bird, both the teacher and I reminded Mary Ellen that it might die and all we could do for it was our best. I was wondering what that might be.

After we got the baby home and sequestered from the cat, it began chirping and flapping its wings. In other words, it didn’t look injured. My theory is that it had been traumatized by twenty eight-year-olds. But it still wouldn’t eat. We got a very small straw and tried to get the bird to drink. Its beak remained firmly shut.

What’s the internet for if not for finding out how to take care of baby birds? We found a good site, which basically said put it back in the nest. Then it explained what to do if you couldn’t find the nest, so we got a berry container, a nail, and a hammer and prepared to take bird and new nest back to school (about a twenty minute drive). The site said the mother should come within two hours—two hours!—and start feeding it. If not—go to plan B.

We had no plan B.

I called Vivien Young at Wildcat Bluff, a natural habitat near our home. She gave me Stephanie’s phone number at the wildlife rehabilitation center. She asked for a picture of the bird, which Mary Ellen took and sent.

We had a baby white winged dove. It feeds differently than other birds. Stephanie told us she would need to tube feed it and asked if we could bring it to her home.

Yes!

The berries went back in their container.

When we delivered it, we learned that they had another bird just like it about the same age. Mary Ellen was delighted her bird would have a friend.

I was delighted her bird hadn’t died.

Soccer Anyone?

You never know what to expect when you sign your grandchild up to play sports. Of course, as grandparents, we always attend the games. The world’s most enthusiastic fans, that’s us.

Mary Ellen isn’t yet into the highly competitive school-based sports or the clubs. We’re still at the “let’s find a volunteer coach and have fun” stage. But I was a bit surprised to get a call last week asking if I would coach soccer.

I have seen two live, competitive soccer games in my life. The first was many years ago in Dallas when the sport was just getting started professionally in the United States. Pele, who was billed as the greatest athlete in the world, played with the opposing team. I twisted a friend’s arm, got two tickets, and saw the game. Although I knew nothing about the rules, it was obvious he was better than everyone else on the field. Then in 1996, I saw the gold-medal Olympic game. A young boy sitting next to me explained why everyone was mad at the referees. I even tried to play once—for fifteen minutes—before realizing I was allergic to the grass we played on and nearly collapsing from asthma.

Back to the phone call. After I finished laughing, I told the lady on the phone, Gail, I would try to find someone. In the meantime, I told Mary Ellen that her team had no coach. She cried. I asked if it would embarrass her if I coached. (I used that term lightly.) She thought a minute, then said, “No, but I’ll need to teach you everything.”

In the meantime, I contacted her wonderful second-grade teacher whose daughter is a high school player. Since she’s around soccer fans, I thought she might know a potential volunteer. She got three or four girls to help and said, “Do you want to put the team in your name or mine.” Wow!

I called to tell Gail that the team had a coach, but a father looking for a team for his daughter had volunteered that day. I must admit I was a little disappointed. Coaching soccer might have been kind of fun—especially with some high school players there to do the real work.

Family Trips Are Supposed To Be Fun!

It’s nearly time for spring break, and some of you may be planning a trip. Family trips can be stressful, but with a little planning, they can be memorable—in a good way.

A couple of years ago, when Mary Ellen was in kindergarten, we took her to the Fossil Rim Wild Life Center near Glen Rose, Texas. The primary objective of the 1,700 acre conservation center is to save endangered species. They have over 1000 animals, approximately 50 species. You can drive through in your own car. However, we chose a guided tour in an open bus and were glad we did. The guide was outstanding, and we had our hands free to take photos and feed the animals—except the ostriches. They bite. We were fortunate that the Amarillo school district’s break that year didn’t coincide with most of the other districts in Texas. We hadn’t checked that but will next time. Apparently the roads were packed the week before. For more information you can go to www.fossilrim.com.

Here are a few ideas for traveling with a youngster. We drove, but some of these suggestions would also work for flying. Have available in the vehicle: a first aid kit, towels, water and healthy snacks, a trash bag, and entertainment. Depending on the child’s age, you might want to include a special doll or stuffed animal, a pillow, and a blanket.

Again, depending on the child’s age, road games can pass some of the time. When I was a kid, my family had fun looking for Burma Shave signs. I miss those. Mary Ellen taught us the car bingo game—bingo cars are yellow. You can vary that by making up your own rules to look for any number of colors. I spy with my little eye drove me crazy, but she loved it. And older kids can look for license plates.

Usborne, www.edcpub.com carries some great activity packs. We took along “Step-By-Step Drawing” and “100 Things To Do On A Trip.” The latter contained a marker and 50 two-sided heavy, wipe-off cards, each with a different activity. They also have a number of travel activity books for school-age children. Sticker books are also great. I’m not a fan of sharp objects in a car, but if you’re willing to risk pretty colors on the back seat, crayons and a pad of paper can entertain for a long time. Storage boxes with easy lock tops can be found in many sizes.
There are several websites that offer suggestions for family vacations. One is www.travelwithkids.about.com. Some—but not all—suggestions in many of these sites are quite expensive, so set a budget ahead of time. You can quickly weed out a lot of destinations.

If you have ideas for a reasonably-priced trip, preferably with a short travel time from your town, please post it in the comments. I would like to create a page dedicated to good, inexpensive, family vacations around the country. I need your help.

HELP!

From time to time, I will provide resources in this blog which might be helpful. Today I am going to concentrate on financial assistance.

Let’s start with TANF—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These programs differ from one state to another. They may include cash assistance, food stamps, child care, and health care (Medicaid and CHIPS). If your income is too high to qualify, ask if your state provides child-only grants, guardianship subsidies, non-parent grants, or kinship grants.

A word regarding heath care. When we got custody of Mary Ellen, she was on Medicaid, but when it needed to be renewed, she was no longer eligible. When I tried to change her to my insurance, I found out there was a fast-approaching deadline. The insurance company needed evidence from the state giving the reason for termination. The state wouldn’t give it to me because Mary Ellen’s mother was listed as the contact. Fortunately, she and I are on speaking terms. In spite of that, the time for getting the document was too long. Again, the gods were with us, and the supervisor for my company worked with me to get coverage. They said this was a common problem. Check way ahead of time, if you might be in this position.

Your child may be eligible for social security benefits. To find specific information, go to www.ssa.gov. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the people-like-me button.

Be sure to identify any tax breaks you are eligible to take. The child will need a social security number. The IRS website is www.irs.gov. I found it to be only marginally helpful. However, be sure to ask about the following: dependency exemption, earned income tax credit, child tax credit, dependent care credit, and education-related credit. If you adopt, you might be able to receive credit for the legal expenses you incur.

Finally, The National Council on Aging has a website that will search possible benefits by state. Their address is www.benefitscheckup.org. You fill out a form—go to the long one to include the child in the information—and they search the data base to provide you with the names of any programs for which you might qualify.

Please feel free to comment on these or add others.