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.

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.

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.

Grandma’s Musings on Takis and Pokémon cards

“Grandma, I want some Takis.”

“Some what?” I’m thinking a Shopkins rival, new sports equipment, a game? (Please notice that I actually know what Shopkins are.)

No, a spicy snack food with so little nutritional value it almost doesn’t count. And I’ve discovered since succumbing to the request and buying a package that if a second-grader dislikes the crunchy little red pipes, she really needs to have her taste buds fixed.

And what’s all the stew about Pokémon cards? I collected baseball cards when I was a kid, and I’m sad to report that my mother was not as enamored with them as I was. She threw all of them in the trash—including Duke Snyder, Willie Mayes, and Yogi Berra—when I left for college. I promise not to do that with the Pokémon cards. I think they are supposed to be the basis for games, but trading seems to be the in thing.

Then there’s music. My dad co-owned a record store, which I got to work in as a teenager. I had a great collection of 45’s and was consequently invited to a lot of parties. “Bring your records.” But that was years ago, and I’ve lost touch with the pop scene. I’m trying to catch up. It’s really necessary to listen to all the new releases. Some of the lyrics are not as tame as “Rock Around the Clock.” Remember when Elvis and the Beatles were considered scandalous? Ah, the good ol’ days.

Mary Ellen is just now getting into texting—using my phone. The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday was a boring day for her, so she contacted her friend while I wrote and did chores. When she left for school the next day, I decided to read the texts—don’t tell. There were over 200! I guess the advantage they have over the endless phone calls I used to make is that I actually could read them. They certainly don’t improve spelling.

Looks like I’m going to be pulled kicking and screaming back to immersion in pop culture.

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.

Just the Facts, Ma’am


Francine commented in last week’s chat that we should never criticize Mary Ellen’s parents. I agree. She loves them, and they love her. She’s entitled to hold that love in her heart unblemished by any snarky comments from me.

There are all kinds of reasons that children are reared by someone other than parents. This discussion assumes that the parents are alive and known at least to the custodian, if not the child.

My husband and I asked a professional how much to tell Mary Ellen regarding the reasons she lives with us. She advised us to tell her the truth when she asked. Depending on your child’s age, that could be immediately or not for several years. If the child is older and already aware of the situation, it might be more important to ask him questions and listen carefully to answers. There will be a later blog devoted to possible issues arising from that talk.

For now, let’s concentrate on telling the truth. It’s important to stick with the facts and not to intersperse opinions. Many children being reared by grandparents have addicted parents. It can be difficult to remember that addiction is an illness and that addicts make unwise decisions because they are under the influence. Making the parents out to be evil is neither helpful nor accurate. The child does need to know they put something in their bodies that isn’t good for them and that the substance is not legal. And he needs to understand the effects of what his parents have done.

In other instances, the conversation might go something like this. Daddy robbed a bank, and that’s against the law, so he is in jail. Mommy is having trouble paying the bills, so we are helping out. Notice I didn’t label either Daddy or Mommy—as in Daddy is a crook and Mommy’s lazy or can’t hold a job. Even worse would be your daddy and mommy are scum. They don’t know the first thing about parenting, so we’re having to do their job for them. These are opinions and additionally imply you don’t want the child.

It is so tempting to place your own value system on the parents and then try to force the child to agree with you. But I believe that, in the long run, the child will learn the custodian’s value system and make her own judgments. And if we badmouth people she loves, we are damaging our relationship with her.

Feel free to respond if you disagree or can add an experience that would help the rest of us.

Next week I hope to post on how much contact we should let the child have with her parents. I’ve been working on it for some time. It’s a tough one.

That First Chaotic Week

We were not expecting to get custody of Mary Ellen. It happened fast. Over the period of a couple of hours, the decision was made and finalized. My head was spinning. So many things to get done.

She was staying with us “temporarily” at the time, so she expected to see us at daycare that evening. Our first priority had to be explaining that she wasn’t going home—for a long time, maybe never. We didn’t know. I couldn’t even imagine how difficult that had to be for a child to hear. We didn’t have a clue how to get it right. Fortunately, her school counselor is caring, experienced, and competent. We met with her that afternoon, explained the situation, and arranged to bring Mary Ellen to her office first thing the next morning. There were no tears—they would come later and often. There was no temper tantrum. That too was only postponed. But she went to class that morning with a clear understanding of where she would be living and why.

Also, the first afternoon, we needed to notify both the school and the daycare that we would be picking her up and that she was not allowed to leave with her parents. We needed to get her birth certificate, social security card, daycare card, Medicaid card, doctor information, medications she was taking, and the time and place of any doctor’s appointments already arranged. We contacted a lawyer to make everything legal. She met with us after we picked up Mary Ellen. My husband stayed with our granddaughter in the waiting room while I talked with “my friend about girl stuff.”

Mary Ellen had been sleeping in our guest room. We needed to make it hers. Her toys and clothes were transferred to our house.

We don’t live in the same school district as her parents. Keeping her in that school was a priority. We thought she had been through enough changes. She didn’t need another. However, we were not happy with her daycare, and neither was she, so we inquired as to which centers picked up at her school. We visited them, making a decision which was better but not totally satisfactory.

We talked to her other grandparents to tell them we wanted them to remain in Mary Ellen’s life. They love her, and she needs all the love she can get. Although we are not close friends, we wanted to be sure they knew they had access to their granddaughter. We would have wanted the same from them.

And we started compiling issues that needed work—the primary one being helping our darling granddaughter feel loved and wanted.

Please comment with other issues you faced or questions our readers might be able to answer.