How a Family Works When Grandma Takes on the Role of “Mommy”

As I held four-year-old Andrew on my lap, he looked at me with innocent eyes and asked, “Can I get inside you so I can be born from you?” It was a heartbreaking moment to explain to my toddler that it doesn’t quite work that way. Having lived with me since he was two months old, it seemed Andrew yearned to consider me, his grandmother, as his mother. This indeed raises profound questions about how a family works when Grandma takes on the role of Mommy, a situation that extends beyond the traditional parent-child relationship and is born from my bond with my daughter Heather.

I’m currently taking care of Andrew, now 7, and Alexis, Heather’s second kid, and Andrew’s half-sister, who is 4. Although my children are the joy of my life, I have found that parenting them at the age of 56 is not without its challenges.

I had already raised five kids by the time this started. I went through a divorce when my children were little and basically brought them up alone. I put through long hours, often working two jobs, to provide for my children and our home in Mastic Beach, New York. In 1995, my children were all grown up and living independently. I had just started fantasizing about retiring and having more time to do things like travel and hang out with friends.

But then my high school senior girlfriend Heather, all of 19, became pregnant and informed me that she planned to retain the child. Having a child is a great responsibility, and I was fuming about it. The absence of the father was another clue. I was concerned that Heather wouldn’t be able to handle the responsibilities of motherhood, so I promised her that if she ever felt overwhelmed, she should bring their son to me, and I would help.

Making a “Family” of My Ancestors

Heather, who had been staying with one of her sisters, came to me a couple of months later and said, “Ma, remember when you said you would help me with the baby? I’ll have to really consider this offer. After talking it over with my partner Jim, who also happens to be my full-time housemate, we decided to say, “Sure, we can take care of Andrew for a while.”

I had anticipated a short wait time of a few months at most. So, as a trained nurse’s assistant at a Suffolk County nursing facility, I asked my supervisor if I might switch to working evenings. So Jim could stay home with Andrew at night, and I could look after him during the day; everyone would be happy.

I thought becoming Andrew’s primary caregiver and guardian would be a temporary gig, but then Heather contacted me and said she was relocating to Florida. What could I do, though, other than be shocked? After all, I had a deep and abiding affection for my grandchild.

Less than a year later, Heather returned to New York but was still unprepared to care for Andrew. By that point, I had grown so fond of him that it didn’t matter to me. Alexis has been a part of our family for two years now. Before moving in with her father and his new wife, she lived with Heather. However, there were problems on both sides, and we ultimately concluded that she would be happier living with me.

The pace of my days reminds me of those when my children were young. But now I’m much more tired than I was before. Thankfully, we’ve established a solid routine: every night, I set out the kids’ clothes for the next day and check that Andrew’s backpack is packed and ready to go. At around 11 o’clock, I leave for work. Jim gets up with the kids every morning at 5:30, gets them ready for school and daycare, and drops them off. After that, he heads to his school maintenance job.

Around eight in the morning, I return home and attempt to get some shut-eye. On the weekends, when it’s warm, the lawnmowers are running, and the neighbors are blasting music, I’m lucky if I can sleep in until noon.

A Parenting Do-Over

I get up and immediately begin cleaning the house. It’s abundant, what with the mountainous loads of laundry and the never-ending tidying and cleaning. After picking up the kids at around 4 o’clock, I start dinner while they watch TV. After dinner, I clean the kitchen, assist with homework, and get the kids ready for bed, only to repeat this routine day after day.

My life is very similar to that of every other mother in her thirties. However, grandparenting presents a whole new set of challenges when you’re not the mother. Andrew had several health issues when he first moved in with us. (His tonsils were so enlarged that swallowing was difficult.) However, in order to receive authorization to treat his disease, I had to file for formal custody, as I was not his parent. Since becoming his legal guardian, things have calmed down a bit.

Although Andrew’s biological father is no longer in the picture, both Alexis’s father and her other grandmother have visitation rights that must be accommodated. That entails hanging out in close proximity to home. At times, it seems as though the demands of others are encroaching on my own existence.

But if I’m having a hard time, Andrew and Alexis are having it even worse. Heather, who lives about an hour away, stops by once a week or so to read to the kids and play with them. The issues are not, however, completely resolved.

How people think about children changed drastically when my kids were small. For instance, I have a more firm approach to discipline than is common today. If they act out, I may ban them from watching TV or send them to their rooms. I hope they pick up some etiquette and learn to treat others with dignity.

Without Jim, I would be completely overwhelmed. He’s been a huge assistance as we bring up the kids. You could consider him a father figure. Jim, whom Andrew nicknames “Poppy,” taught Andrew how to cast a fishing rod quite far for a little boy his age.

The rest of my family helps out by donating their time and money. We’re not in a bind, but it’s nice when my older kids contribute by buying toys and clothes for the younger ones. My daughter Anita often watches them, and when my son Ronnie has time, he takes them to the zoo or a museum.

I’m quite aware that I don’t live like most ladies my age do. I don’t think I eat out as much, watch as many movies, or travel as much as my buddies do. But being among kids makes me feel young again. I can’t afford the luxury of being bored and irritable right now.

Andrew and Alexis are never at a loss for activities. They would rather go to a fast food restaurant, play baseball, or ride their bikes. And it’s fun to play with them. Now I can’t wait to retire so I can spend more time with these kids, accompany them on school field excursions, and maybe even volunteer at their schools.

Having the opportunity to start a family all over again is a remarkable gift. You don’t value your own children enough when you’re parenting them. They’re taxing and irritating to deal with. But as a grandma, you know that a child is only a lovely gift for a brief period. You realize how fleeting these moments are and how crucial it is to soak them up while you can.

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