My husband and I are just off a long weekend soloing with the Fabulous Mikey, perhaps the cutest 21/2 -year-old grandchild in the universe. And the smartest, too.
After he was safely returned to the care of his mother — with no new scars or scabs but with some angry bug bites — we felt bereft. Mikey is just at the age when he can express the feelings bubbling up inside him — affection, delight, amazement and the need for a cuddle — and it is disarming.
But we were also drained and exhausted and with fresh respect for grandparents who do this work full time. We took days off work to double-team Mikey. What about the 60-somethings who have to chase after a toddler solo?
We could find the money to hire a small circus to amuse him, if necessary. What about the grandparents who have to continue to work past retirement age to support the basic needs of grandchildren?
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 10 percent, or about 5.4 million, children in the U.S. are living with their grandparents. In Maryland, 112,000 children under 18 are living in their grandparents' homes, and the grandparents have primary responsible for 48,000 of those children.
Forty-two percent of those grandparents are white and not Hispanic, and 48 percent are African-American. Sixty-six percent are over age 60, but only 13 percent of the children live in poverty, probably because the grandparents are still working to provide for them.
The reasons the parents are missing from this picture? Substance abuse, incarceration, mental illness, deployments, poverty or parents who must live in or travel to another state for work, said Ana Beltran, a special adviser to Generations United and an expert on "grandfamilies." She herself was raised, in part, by her grandmother.
"We don't know how the statistics break down," she said. "But we suspect it is primarily substance abuse."
The good news is, these children are so much better off with their grandparents than in foster care — no matter how slow afoot we might be — and they would quickly overwhelm the foster care system.
"There is a lot of research that shows these kids thrive and do very well with the grandparents," said Ms. Beltran. "They have more stability, more family connections, more safety."
It can be good for the grandparents, too. Though they suffer increased stress-related ailments, the care of their grandchildren gives meaning to their lives, and they feel valued, she said. In addition, the parents feel better knowing their children are being cared for by family.
There has been an 18 percent increase in the number of multigenerational households in the decade ending in 2010, and an additional uptick will no doubt be seen as a result of the recession: Parents who are simply unable to afford their children.
But there are supports in place for these reassembled families, and Maryland does a better job than most, according to Ms. Beltran. Educational consent and health care consent — a quasi-formal custody agreement that allows the grandparents to make decisions for the kids without going through the painful process of depriving the parents of custody — is available in Maryland.
And there are support groups (which provide programs for the children while adults meet) that can help grandparents find assistance with many of the added expenses they suddenly find themselves paying for: groceries, baby formula, health care, health insurance, prescription drugs and utilities. And there are plenty of other services, too.
"There are so many programs, but grandparents are not always aware of them," she said.
My husband and I aren't looking for any medals for watching the Fabulous Mikey for the weekend. His parents don't understand we'd pay them for the privilege. But we got a taste of what life is like for people our age who suddenly find themselves raising young children again and all that it requires.
The love is easy. The patience, the stamina, the money, the time — not every grandparent has as many of these resources as they need.
It is worth noting that Sunday, Sept. 8 is National Grandparents Day. It is certainly a job description worth celebrating.
"They really are heroes," said Ms. Beltran, of the men and women who take over when their own children stumble as parents. "And that's how we like to think of them."
For more information on programs and services for grandparents in your state, visit grandfactsheets.org.