As the season of Hallmark celebrations of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day envelops us, it is important to acknowledge the sacred role so many grandparents play in their grandchildren’s lives. As a child, I was lucky enough to go to elementary school a block away from my maternal grandmother, who provided us with scrumptious lunches doled out daily with hugs and kisses to recharge us for the second half of the school day. In the decades since, the role of grandparents and their image have undergone a dramatic makeover.
According to census data in the United States 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren. Unfortunately, the reason is not thoughtful, delayed parenting, but rather the consequence of parents who are unable or unwilling to care for their children due to substance abuse, disease, incarceration, death or abandonment.
Twenty-nine years ago a lovely couple, “C” and “L”, in their early 60’s came to my office desperate to protect their precious ten year old granddaughter, “M”, who had been left in their care five years earlier, when their older daughter, “D”, and son-in-law’s lives were overwhelmed with addiction issues. Their granddaughter M had flourished in their loving care, coupled with the deep connections they had fostered between M and their other grandchildren, daughter, son and son-in-law. Suddenly, M’s entire world was threatened by the intervention of Social Services, who wanted to remove the little girl from the only real home she had ever known and reunite her with her mother and half-siblings, none whom she had ever met. I had just returned from vacation with my twin sister’s family which included two young nieces, whom I had given Nancy Drew books to read during the holiday. In my initial meeting with M and her grandparents she mentioned how much she enjoyed reading. I asked her what was the latest book she had read and when I responded, “Isn’t that the Nancy Drew book where…” M turned to her grandparents in shock and asked, “You hired a lawyer who reads Nancy Drew?” Such was the beginning of a relationship that would continue to this day.
While M’s Mother indisputably had left her daughter with her parents voluntarily, while C and L were exemplary grandparents and human beings, M’s Mother had decided to exploit the financial benefits she could gain from adding M to her entitlement requests. I became horrified by the prospects facing M, as I drove past her Mother’s apartment building to see for myself what was at stake. Homeless men were leaning against the filthy, urine-encrusted building, a dramatic contrast to the white picket fence suburban home D and B had provided for M since kindergarten. Shortly thereafter, we appeared in court. Although the “best interests of a child” is the governing standard, it seemed that the Judge’s focus was more upon reunification of a mother and child. In an effort to protect M from what I had seen, I urged protracted, limited supervised visitation be organized in the Grandparents’ home so that the Mother, who claimed to have cleaned up her life, could be reintroduced to M in a physically and emotionally safe environment. The initial arrangement provided for M to spend two hours with her Mother while in the Grandparents’ care and to extend to some alone time outside their home but within eyesight of the Grandparents. This went on for a period of time and the Court seemed inclined to increase the Mother’s time with M and to ease the supervision. Thankfully, the Mother’s deception was exposed in time when her then enormous cell phone went off in court. In those days, cell phones were an exceedingly rare commodity and the assumed need of such a device by an unemployed person on limited government support raised very appropriate questions about her true occupation and activities. As a result, M’s visits ultimately ended but the question remained what was to happen to M?
C and L wanted to adopt M, feeling that terminating their daughter’s claim was the best protection for their granddaughter. I explained that I felt compelled to hear what M wanted for herself and why. I then truly understood the Biblical expression “Out of the mouths of babes…”, when M wisely explained how grateful she was for her grandparents’ care and devotion and recognized the essential safety that they consistently provided, but said she did not want to become her cousins’ aunt or her Mother’s sister or her Grandparents’ daughter. Rather, M wanted their legal protection without relabeling the name of their connections. C and L were awarded legal custody of their beloved granddaughter, but that is not the end of the story, it was only her beginning. Luckily for me, the family included me in her life, invited me to M’s Bat Mitzvah and twelve years later, I received an email out of the blue from M telling me that she just had become a lawyer, inspired by the experiences of her childhood. M is a practicing attorney with an extraordinary close and loving relationship with her grandparents who remain active at 88 and 91 years of age.
The impact of divorce and the breakups of young families have created another set of challenges for grandparents. Just when many grandparents are about to embark on retirement or the third chapter of life, adult children, who had proclaimed their independence and had families of their own, suddenly descend with their offspring expecting their parents in their golden years to redefine their lives, provide child care and/or financial aid to them, derailing retirement dreams of many grandparents and eroding their life long savings. When you add to this mix the complications created by remarriages and blended families, it puts a new spin on the phrase “the graying of divorce”.
While I have yet to experience becoming a grandmother, having had a front row seat to the legal consequences of the involvement of grandparents in divorce, since each state has its own statutory guidelines for granting visitation rights to grandparents, I think it is essential that whenever a grandchild is at risk, it is the responsibility of each grandparent to learn the applicable law and to recognize that in that precarious time, grandparents can offer a child a sense of connection, stability and history or as the true expert on “Roots”, Alex Haley, wrote, “Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.”