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.

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.

Contact With Parents

Whether or not to allow parents access to their children is a tricky issue, partly because each situation is different and partly because much of that decision is subjective. First let’s talk about the extremes. They are the easiest.
Parents who are known to abuse drugs or alcohol or who are physically or emotionally abusive should not be allow unsupervised access to their children.

Parents who have always been conscientious but who cannot care for their child because of job loss or health, for example, should be allowed to see the children when it is convenient and to the extent that it doesn’t make the child feel pulled in two directions. You can facilitate that by making the child aware that your relationship with the parents is a positive one.

If visitation is outlined by court order, follow it barring something negative not foreseen by the judge.

That leaves a whole range of possibilities. Chances are good that you and the child’s parents don’t parent alike. “But Daddy lets me,” is a good opportunity to remind the child (as well as yourself) that we all answer to different bosses. Teachers, scout leaders, coaches, church leaders all have different expectations. In your home, you’re the boss.

It is possible the child will return spoiled, mouthy, or angry. However, it seems to me that if the child’s behavior returns to your expectations shortly after coming home, there isn’t much cause for concern. If, however, you get indications that the parents are making the child feel guilty, or are undermining you, or that the visits trigger negative memories—whether or not the child is consciously aware of it—visitation might need to be shortened or supervised. I suggest you always ask open-ended questions when the child returns. Some examples might be: what did you do; who else did you see; how are you feeling. Then listen. Ask follow-up questions. If the child seems upset, expresses fear, or has nightmares ask questions—then listen.

There have been times when I wasn’t sure if Mary Ellen really was afraid, for example, or was manipulating because she wanted to put off going to sleep. I asked her school counselor how I could tell. She said, “Trust your gut.” My gut doesn’t always know the answer, but it’s the best barometer I have.

If these issues go unresolved for any length of time or get worse, I suggest seeking professional help. Your school counselor is a start. If the issues are beyond the scope of her job description, she can likely make a referral. Some mental health professionals take Medicaid.

What if the parent is in jail? Here’s my gut talking again. You and the child need to be realistic about the situation. Seeing the parent at least once would make the situation clear to the child. And he deserves an explanation as to why mommy or daddy is there. It should be factual—neither blaming nor excusing. The child needs to know there are consequences for breaking the law.

This is a thorny issue. I don’t pretend to be an expert. Feel free to agree, disagree, or add information.

On Staying Healthy

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One of the first things you hear when you become a custodial grandparent is “take care of your health.” When you are seventy and the child is five, the reasons are obvious. There are numerous websites with advice on how to do that. You can find what foods to eat, how much sleep to get, and which exercises are the most productive.

I have no intention of competing with the advice doctors give on how to take of your body. Here are a few practical ideas from this old, busy person that work for me.

Continue Doing Something You Love
I’ve cut out many activities since Mary Ellen came to live with us. I did that because she needed a lot of love and attention. But the one thing I told my husband I refused to give up was my writing. I write in the mornings when she is at school and have published my first novel. Being able to hang on to my dream of getting that book, which I had worked on for years, published kept the anger at bay. Yes, I still get angry occasionally, not at Mary Ellen, but at the fact that our retirement isn’t what we envisioned and saved for. I forgive myself and remember how much joy she brings to our lives.

Spend Time With Friends Every Week
Baby sitters are expensive, so my husband and I rarely go out together in the evenings. However, I manage an evening book club and a happy hour with the girls once a month. I attend Sunday services regularly, and we all, including Mary Ellen, join friends for lunch afterwards. And the weekends she spends with her parents give us the opportunity to rest or have a date. I have lunch occasionally with a couple of special friends, people I can vent with or just “catch up.” I have no concern about the conversations going any farther and know I will get honest, thoughtful responses to questions. Of course, communication with my spouse is more important than ever, especially since we’ve never reared a child together before.

Minimize The Stress
This is critical. When my sleep gets interrupted several times a night or I find myself staring at the computer screen unable to type a sentence, I know too much stress is affecting me. Here are some actions I have found useful in getting me back on track.
*Establish a routine; *Get organized; *Utilize premade dinners once or twice a week; *Plan meals a week at a time. *Keep the house clean. I don’t mean spotless, and most kids can help some. But filth breads depression.

We try to teach Mary Ellen good habits. In retirement, mine had become a bit lax. It was time to remember how to stuff too many things into too little time. You know how to do it because you’ve done it. I realize many of you are not retired, and this responsibility is one more in an already packed schedule. *Prioritize and eliminate!

*Carve out time each day for your spouse, if you have one–for yourself, if you don’t. Having a set bedtime for your grandchild helps here.

*Exercise. I’m not an exercise person, and I feel guilty every time I hear somebody say it’s the best way to keep your heart and brain healthy. But I believe it. My dad played tennis three times a week until he was ninety-four and lived to 102 still thinking clearly. So, how can I follow the advice and not spend too much time or thought on it? I walk—fifteen minutes in a hilly area. It works! I have more energy and ability to concentrate even after that minimal amount. I tell myself that eventually it will be thirty minutes and I’ll be jogging. Don’t hold your breath.

**And a hot bubble bath with a glass of wine never hurts.

So, What To Do About Christmas?

elf-on-the-shelfI remember Christmas being a time of joy and anticipation, a time for tradition, a time for sharing with family.

Two years ago, we got custody of Mary Ellen one week before Christmas. Her parents retained parental rights and were allowed supervised visitation. They spent the night at our house Christmas Eve, and we did the best we could to make the celebration the next morning child-centered.

By last Christmas, her parents had unsupervised visitation, and we hoped they could regain custody within the year. Although we have the right to have Mary Ellen on Christmas day, we thought her parents should start their own tradition. Santa Claus came to their house. We were not invited.

This year we are establishing our own tradition knowing it may be for one year or forever. Last week Mary Ellen wrote a letter to Santa Claus, and over the Thanksgiving weekend, she, Papa, and I decorated the tree. I must say that a Charlie Brown tree with one decoration on it and a blanket around the trunk appealed to me. Lugging the boxes down from the attic has become more difficult with each year. But seeing Mary Ellen’s pleasure at helping to decorate made it worthwhile. In the next day or two, we will string cranberries.

Elf-on-the-Shelf arrived yesterday morning. (For those of you vacationing on Mars the last few years, the elf is magic. She observes the child’s behavior during the day and is whisked to the North Pole to report while the child sleeps. The elf then reappears at a different spot the next morning. The rules are that the elf is not allowed to talk and the child is not allowed to touch her. Got it?) Mary Ellen named her elf Sheila. I read Sheila the letter to Santa because Mary Ellen was a bit too much in awe to read it herself.

Christmas Eve, Mary Ellen will make glitter reindeer food with her mother and then return to us. Christmas morning, we will find that Santa visited our house and that his reindeer ate their snack. Her parents will be invited to join us.

I wish Mary Ellen could experience the stability of the same type of tradition I had. But life is full of adjustments, and I need to remind myself that this adjustment is mine. Mary Ellen doesn’t know the difference. I need to keep focused on what’s really important–that she feel loved and valued and that the sparkle in her eyes lets us know she’s happy. Of course that’s what is important all year.

Just What Is a Real Grandma

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Mary Ellen’s parents have told her I’m not her “real grandma.” So I’ve been thinking about that. I sure feel like a grandma. She and I love each other. I was at the hospital as she was being born and held her before she was an hour old. When she was five, we—my husband, the “real grandpa” and I—were asked if we would accept custody of her. We both said yes with no hesitation.

I had two terrific grandmothers. They were alike only in that they were women true to themselves who loved their families and expected the best from all of us.

Edna Melin, my dad’s mother, taught piano in rural Missouri. She kept a meticulously clean house and was an excellent cook, making everything from dill pickles to potato chips, French bread, and tomato juice. She quilted with perfect, tiny stitches and crocheted bedspreads and tablecloths. If relationships are identified through inherited traits, she’s not my real grandmother.

Myra Cooper, my maternal grandmother, was active in community projects, Democratic politics, and worked in the family business. She loved music but didn’t play an instrument. She was on the cusp of the women’s lib movement before it was named. A live-in cook prepared her meals and cleaned her house. I’m the live-in cook in my house, but except for that, my life comes closer to mirroring hers.

When I was with either of my grandmothers, I felt protected and happy. They rarely had to set rules or enforce discipline. My parents did that. They gave me gifts twice a year, but my parents supported me, although we were far from wealthy.

But custodial grandparents feel like every day is what Mary Ellen calls “opposite day”. We set the rules, enforce them, encourage positive behavior and splendid dreams. We set high expectations and work to be examples for reaching them. We pay for the food and gasoline, for clothes and soccer fees. We chauffeur to school, parties, doctor appointments, and Brownies. We get to know her friends, their parents, and often their grandparents. We host overnights and play dates. We attend teacher conferences. We make sure that teeth are brushed and bedtime is kept. This litany isn’t intended as a complaint–just the facts, ma’am.

That’s not what my grandparents did, so maybe I’m not a “real grandma” after all. But, like I said in the beginning, it sure feels like I am—and that makes me happy.