Seven years ago, Debby Blush and her longtime partner, Clark Cooper, had the lives most couples in their mid-50s dream of: the heavy lifting of child-rearing over, they were free to come and go as they pleased – visiting clubs when they wanted, taking short getaways and enjoying each other's company.
Those days are long gone. In late 2009, Blush’s only child, Erin, was diagnosed with cancer. Five months later, she died, leaving behind her 3-year-old son, Jack.
With Jack’s father out of the picture, Blush and Cooper did what grandparents do. They took custody of Jack, moving him into their Fulton home. And just like that, they were parents again – only this time, much older parents.
“It was a quite an adjustment,” Blush, 63, recalls. “But it was the only option. I had some thoughts, like, ‘I wish we didn’t have to do this.’ … But it was the right thing to do. And we did it.”
For a growing number of grandparents, raising a child (or children) is the right thing to do.
A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that 7 million grandparents are living with a child, up 22 percent from 2000. Of that 7 million, about 40 percent, or 2.7 million, are the primary caretakers. Although no figures for Howard County are available, the number of grandparents acting as parents in Maryland was 45,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the increase had mirrored the national rise.
Employees in the county agencies that help such grandparents say anecdotal evidence suggests the number here is also on the rise.
“There definitely are more every year,” says Valerie Liss, caregiver program coordinator in the Howard County Office on Aging.
Liss and others say the reasons grandparents take over raising their children’s children vary. Some of the parents are in jail, while others have drug problems or mental health issues. Some, like Blush’s daughter, die. Whatever the reason, the new job can be difficult for grandparents, both legally and emotionally.
“Most of them have already raised their own children and are looking forward to kind of being able to take it easy,” Liss says. “They’re getting on in age themselves, and now all of a sudden they’re taking on more children to raise. It’s very, very challenging for them to be not only providing a home and raising their grandchildren, which they want to do, but also to get the services they need.”
Valerie Harvey, an adolescent resource specialist in the county Office of Children’s Services who handles a referral line for residents with questions about caring for their grandchildren, says many of the calls are about how to obtain legal custody or guardianship, a necessity for such tasks as enrolling the child in school and obtaining health coverage.
Grandparents also raise other issues, she said, such as where to find (and how to afford) child care and how to handle the brave new world of social media. Harvey regularly leads workshops for parents of adolescents, and she said the grandparents who attend often are worried about the potential hazards of new technology and social media.
“Most tweens and teens know so much more than they do, and they say they just don’t know what the children are doing,” Harvey says. “I tell them, ‘You’re never going to catch up with these kids, but you should continue to educate yourselves so you know what’s going on some.’ … And I encourage them to know who their children’s friends are.”
But if the task of raising grandchildren can be overwhelming, it can also be a blessing, grandparents say, and the work of raising another child or two can be a labor of love.
Just ask Flora Hairston. The Columbia woman, already a mother of four, found herself with an infant to raise at age 52 when her single daughter had a child and, for a variety of reasons, Hairston assumed custody. “It’s been a big plate,” says Hairston, now 70, who left her job early in part to care for the child, then an infant. Her granddaughter, Kelly, had medical issues, including Type 1 diabetes, that made caring for her especially challenging.
But today, Kelly is a loving, caring young woman of 18, about to graduate from Wilde Lake High School and pursue a nursing degree at Howard Community College.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how much it’s been worth it,” Hairston says. “Kelly’s just a great kid — outstanding.”
In part because she has not worked, Hairston ruefully concedes that she devoted more time and energy to Kelly than she did to her children. She’s always been close to Kelly’s friends — many of whom call her “gramma” — and while Kelly has pulled away some, the two still shop together, walk together around Lake Kittamaqundi, and talk together endlessly. “We talk, we talk, we talk,” Hairston says. “We talk about everything.”
Hairston calls raising Kelly a major learning experience that taught her the value selflessness. “It was such a major learning experience, but what it taught you is it’s not about you, not about us. It’s about each other. When we lose ourselves in each other, that’s when we really find ourselves.”
Besides the value of selflessness, the experience taught her the importance of grandparents – for all children. “Grandparents are priceless tools for families,” she said. “Kids really need grandparents.”
This is not news to Kelly, who is well aware of what her grandmother has done for her. “We get along well,” she says. “I’ve been with her all my life — I mean, I love her.”
Debby Blush would second Hairston’s sentiments. When they took custody of Jack, she and Cooper, also 63, made the sacrifices they felt they should. They stayed home to provide the boy with a constant presence and stable environment, got up mornings to pack his lunches and get him ready for school, and did all those other loving tasks that parents, usually half their age, typically do. They even got married after decades of companionship, so that if anything happened to her, Cooper, who is not Jack’s biological grandfather, would get custody.
On top of all that, Blush still wrestles with her special emotional attachment to Jack, now 9, which she says differs from what she felt as a mother.
“I feel like I’m in a grandmother frame of mind when it comes to Jack,” she says.
Like the stereotypical grandparent, for example, she has trouble disciplining her grandson and cannot stand to see him unhappy. “I hate it when he’s upset,” she says. “I guess I hated it when my daughter was upset, but something just feels different about it, and I guess it’s being grandmother as opposed to mother.”
Still, the work, the sacrifices and the emotional turmoil are nothing compared to the joys of seeing her grandson grow.
“It’s just been great,” she says. “It’s really terrific.” Knowing she’s doing it for her daughter makes it all the better.