When grandparents step in to fill a parenting gap

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A family of four eats a spaghetti dinner at a table.
From left, 9-year-old Jamichael, step-grandfather Scott Anderson, grandmother Shelly Anderson and 13-year-old Jachai eat a spaghetti dinner at their dining room table in Duluth.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Many older adults look forward to being a grandparent, when they can spoil their grandkids with gifts, food and attention. It's a dream for many, but for some, it's a very different story.

Shelly and Scott Anderson live in their retirement dream home — it's on a lake in rural Duluth, with beautiful bay windows, a driveway and a large open kitchen and dining room. They’re both still working, but the home is built with empty nest retirement in mind.

But now, it's pretty noisy. There are two boys living with them: Their 13- and 9-year-old grandsons, whom they are raising.

"It's the opposite of what it should be,” said Scott Anderson. “We've had being a grandparent taken away from us."

Scott and Shelly Anderson took in the boys in 2015. Shelly Anderson said they did it because her daughter had substance abuse issues. Her daughter has now been clean for two years, and is more and more part of the boys' lives. Still, at this point, the Andersons are the main providers.

“It was tough for me and my husband because my daughter is not his daughter, it's his step-daughter,” Shelly Anderson said. ”And he's like, 'We're in our 50s, I don't want to be raising kids.' And I'm like, 'I don't want my grandkids going into foster care.' So, it's a tough spot to be."

While Scott Anderson loves spending time with the grandchildren, this isn’t what he envisioned.

"Basically, I've kind of been angry about it and I'm having a hard time accepting it,” he said. “Because you have two deadbeat dads out there who don't do anything with their kids — I mean nothing, they haven't seen them in three to five years. And that to me is unexcusable."

He's not alone in his predicament.

Across Minnesota, more than 70,000 grandchildren are being raised by their grandparents, according to the state. The true numbers are likely higher, given that many grandparents don't go through formal processes to assume responsibility for the kids.

For Shelly Anderson, it means cooking dinner for four, setting and keeping daily routines and learning how to parent again. She had to learn not to make each child his own meal.

"When you're a grandma and your grandkids come over you give them everything they want, right? And then you're exhausted and you send them home,” she said. “I had to realize that I'm not grandma anymore. Now I'm parent. They have to start doing for themselves. I can't exhaust myself because they aren't going home. They're here."

Being full-time parents has meant learning about parenting a new generation — limiting screen time, trying to get the kids to play outside instead of staying in, and learning new school systems, which have moved much more online.

But there were also basics to remember.

"It took me a while … you know, they'd come home from school and it was probably like six months before I'm like, 'Gosh, I probably should be going through their backpack and looking at their homework.' You forget about all that stuff you've got to do,” she said.

A woman looks through a door at a boy doing homework.
Shelly Anderson checks on 13-year-old Jachai as he does his homework.
Evan Frost | MPR News

For many grandparents, arriving at parenting again happens because their adult children have trouble in their lives — drugs or legal issues. Shelly Anderson said that can leave some grandparents feeling gun-shy.

She said grandparents often think, "You know, ‘Maybe I shouldn't be raising them if I didn't raise them right the first time. Am I going to screw it up the second time?’"

For both Shelly and Scott Anderson, there's been one really important outlet. Once a month, they drive to Proctor, Minn., to go to Parenting, Again — a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren in the Duluth area.

At a recent meeting, about a dozen grandparents sat around a large square arrangement of tables. The group leader, Judy Kreag, brought in a catered meal. People chatted over their food.

When they finished eating, the discussion began.

A newcomer spoke about how, over Christmas, she and her husband had a difficult time with their grandson.

"So on Sunday, he demanded all his knives back — you know, the little jackknives and all that stuff, back. And Joe, of course, wouldn't give it to him. He found the BB gun and he loaded it up and aimed it at Joe, so Joe called the cops,” the woman said.

Around the table, other grandparents nodded, knowingly.

"He had a little bit of breakdown with his therapist and admitted it was partly because of the baby, that's why he was fighting with everybody — because he didn't think that his mom should have another baby,” she said.

Others talked about their own grandchildren feeling the same way when their adult children had more children. They shared similar stories and talked about how they tried to address those emotions.

The group leader, Judy Kreag, told her the Parenting, Again group was there for her.

"Well, we hope you'll come back. There's a lot of support here for you,” Kreag said.

Grandparent Jeff Clancy said the group had been key for him and his wife.

"You feel a little bit alone at times because — we talked a little bit about dropping kids off at school a little bit in our group tonight. Yeah, you are the 60-year-old parent, grandparent that's bringing your little guy to school,” Clancy said. “So, this gives us a little time to talk to like-minded parents, parents that are in the same situation."

Clancy said there are many similarities within the group, the issues its members face, the issues their grandchildren face and the issues their adult children face.

But he also said the systems they navigate often seem very different — some have legal custody, some have to get licensed as foster homes, some are fighting their children for custody of their grandchildren, some are stepping in and raising their grandchildren until their children can get clean or sober.

Clancy said often they're doing it at great financial cost.

"It hasn't been so bad for us, but there are some members of our group that have spent most of their retirement on court costs looking out for their grandchild, and it's very sad to see,” Clancy said. “As grandparents, we're going to do what we have to for these little kids because we know that it's not their fault."

Correction (Feb. 14, 2020): An earlier version of this story misspelled Shelly Anderson’s first name.

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