One afternoon, while 3-year-old Emilie was sitting on her potty chair, she rolled a piece of toilet tissue into a cigarette-shaped form.
"Whatcha doing?" asked her grandmother, Nellie Morse, as Emilie worked her little fingers around the tissue.
"I’m rolling a joint," she replied.
"Who taught you how to do that?"
"My mamma and her friend. They taught me."
That’s when Nellie knew she had to confront her 24-year-old daughter, Marilyn, who had traded life as a hard-working single mom for the fast lane of bikes, booze and drugs. For months, Marilyn had been hanging out with a motorcycle gang and a succession of long-haired boyfriends.
"I know you’re fooling with drugs," Nellie told her daughter when she came to pick up Emilie.
"Who told you that?" Marilyn asked.
"Oh, Mother, she just made that up."
"Babies don’t lie. She wouldn’t know how to make up something like that. If you’re not going to straighten up and raise her right, why don’t you just leave her with us?"
Marilyn slowly nodded. Within a few weeks, she appeared before a judge to sign the necessary adoption papers, granting her parents custody of young Emilie.
Those legal proceedings happened nearly nine years ago, and today, Nellie and her husband, Grant, count themselves among an increasing number of grandparents who are being recycled – as parents to their children’s children. According to 1990 Census Bureau figures, nearly 1 million grandparents are raising grandchildren by themselves, and another 1.5 million grandparents have opened their homes to grandchildren and a son or daughter as well. Thus, approximately 5 percent of American families represent a grandparent raising a grandchild.
"I don’t think many of us understand how serious the problem is," says Irene Endicott, a grandmother of 12 and author of Grandparenting Redefined. "At a time when older people are supposed to be enjoying the fruits of their labors and thinking about retirement, they are chasing 4- and 5-year-olds around and using up all their retirement funds in the process."
Grandparents raising grandchildren is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, grandparents have stepped in and raised children orphaned through disease or war. Closer to our era, President Bill Clinton lived as a young boy with grandparents while his mother studied nursing in Louisiana. But in the last decade, the number of grandchildren living with grandparents has shot up 37 percent, a rise paralleling the swelling numbers of single parents and out-of-wedlock births.
Why the sudden increase?
Blame it on the four D’s: drugs, divorce, desertion and death of a parent. "Substance abuse is by far the No. 1 cause of grandparents’ legal custody of their grandchildren," says Mrs. Endicott. "Young single mothers, already addicted or unable to cope with their situations, turn to drugs for a way out. It’s the children – malnourished and emotionally neglected – who suffer the most.
"Divorce also ranks right up there," adds Mrs. Endicott. "The doorbell rings at 10:15 at night, you open the door, and it’s your daughter. She’s got your grandbaby in her arms and she’s crying. ‘He’s gone, Mom. He left me,’ she says. ‘Can we stay with you?’ "
Few parents can refuse such a request, not when flesh and blood are involved. Nor can grandparents deny Scripture. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul wrote, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."
For Norman and Marge McGarry, there was never any question they would take in 2-year-old Paula when her mother – a single parent – died of a brain aneurysm at 27. "It was easy to get custody," said Marge. "The father had no contact with Paula, so he did not contest the adoption."
Parenting a second time has been more difficult for the McGarrys, who are in their mid-50s. "We raised five children, and we were certainly more active with them, playing ball in the back yard and going on snowmobile trips in the winter. These days, it’s all we can do to keep up with Paula. We’re just not as active as we once were."
Grandparents in their 50s and 60s know they don’t have as much stamina for middle-of-the-night bottle feedings or keeping tabs on energetic youngsters. Others are at an age where their bodies are starting to break down. Fifty-six-year-old Nellie Morse, for instance, has survived two bouts of cancer. Five years ago, doctors informed her she had a year to live, but she was determined to beat that prognosis. "I’m still alive," says Nellie, "but I’m scared to death that I won’t live to raise Emilie."
Taking in grandchildren usually resigns grandparents to a penny-pinching retirement. For many, their high-income earning years are a memory, and they are living on a modest pension or fixed income. Many must dip into savings or sell their homes – nest eggs they expected to tap later in life.
"It’s a real financial burden," agrees Doris Hawkins, a Detroit-area grandmother. Her daughter, Nancy, became a single parent shortly after high school graduation. Doris and her husband, Tom, offered to care for Robby while Nancy worked at Michigan Bell. Then her daughter was transferred to another town, but she couldn’t afford day care on her meager salary, so Doris and Tom offered to keep Robby.
"We all thought this was going to be a temporary arrangement, but then Nancy had another baby out-of-wedlock, and we had to look after him," said Doris. "Her life was really messed up."
Caring for two children also messed up the Hawkinses’ retirement plans. "Tom and I were looking forward to moving to the Carolinas when we retire, but that is now out of the question. We’d already raised a family, but what were we going to do? Those little kids are kin."
Both children are attending a Christian elementary school, and the Hawkinses are determined to learn from the mistakes they made the first time around. "When our kids were teenagers, we got out of the habit of going to church," said Doris. "I feel a lot of responsibility for that, because we got lazy when Nancy needed it most. This is our second chance to make things right."
When Pete and Peggy Jackson married 25 years ago, they wanted to have children right away – with the idea that they would still be on the sunny side of 40 when their children left home.
Peggy became a mother at 20, when Sandra was born. A brother, Andrew, arrived two years later. Sandra grew up in the church and loved studying the Bible. She had an independent streak, however, and upon high school graduation, Sandra announced her intention to marry a troubled young man named Jack. "We didn’t approve of the marriage, but Sandra was 18, so there was nothing we could do about it," said Peggy. "They were both young and immature, and he had a history of alcohol and drug abuse. He once lost his driver’s license for several months because he was caught driving under the influence."
They began to have problems early in their marriage, and Sandra soon joined her husband’s alcoholic binges. Drugs then entered the picture. Despite their rocky relationship, Sandra gave birth to two daughters, Heather and Nicole. In 1990, when the children were 2 and 1, a drug-addled Sandra attempted suicide and landed in a psychiatric ward for 30 days. Health and Rehabilitative Services, or HRS, authorities were going to put the two infants in foster care until the Jacksons took temporary custody. While they disapproved of their daughter’s lifestyle, Pete and Peggy felt the children should not have to pay for the sins of the parents.
After Sandra left the mental hospital, she and Jack took the kids and moved to a nearby town. Meanwhile, the downward spiral continued. To earn enough money to support her drug habit, Sandra became an exotic dancer in a topless bar, but she knew that dancing by night and doing drugs by day was no way to raise a family.
"That’s when I got a call from my daughter, asking if I would take the kids," said Peggy. "When those precious girls came to live with us, they were emotionally and physically exhausted. It was a real adjustment for them to settle into a stable home life. For the first year, they couldn’t sleep. All they did was whine and cry. I could only hold those little girls and rock them. I lost 25 pounds just trying to get through it."
Then Sandra and Jack asked if they could move in with the Jacksons until they got their lives in order. "I said okay, but only for a short time," said Peggy. "I really wanted them to work out their marriage and get the children back. But six weeks later, Jack beat up Sandra in our home, and then he tried to rape her in front of the 18-month-old. The child still remembers that incident to this day. Sandra left Jack and moved to another town, where she moved in with a boyfriend and started nude dancing again."
At this point, the Jacksons began adoption proceedings, but their daughter hired an attorney to fight them. Parents and daughter are now estranged. Meanwhile, HRS authorities are allowing the girls to stay with their grandparents.
Nellie Morse’s legal battles are behind her. Today, she can concentrate on raising Emilie, who is a happy 12-year-old. But she has not seen her mom ever since she left the courtroom nine years ago. "Marilyn knows our phone number and where we live," Nellie says, "but I have no idea how to get in touch with her. She’s only called a few times, usually at Christmas."
Once, when Nellie and much-younger Emilie went to the local mall, a bearded biker dressed in leather walked past. "She started shaking," recalled Nellie, "and she clung to me, saying, ‘Granny, you won’t make me go, will you?’
"I said, ‘No, Baby, you won’t ever have to go. You can live here as long as you want.’ "
Pete and Peggy Jackson feel the same way about the two grandchildren they are raising. "Pete and I have suffered, but not like the children have," said Peggy. "We were looking forward to wherever the Lord wanted us to go, never thinking we would have to raise a family again.
"But God has taught us the valuable lesson that we can serve Him through these kids, and we’re determined to do exactly that."
"Picking Up the Pieces" appeared in the book Raising Them Right,