Walking a Tightrope

The most difficult challenge faced by grandparents caring full-time for grandparents is maintaining their balance.

Most grandparents look forward to spending uncomplicated time with grandchildren. It's an unspoken rule that rules can usually be broken at Grandma and Grandpa's house. They've already done hard time as overseer of homework, hygiene and manners. The disciplinarian duties can be cast aside by typical grandparents, in favor of childish conspiracies and shared secrets.

But those fanciful dreams of being an incredible grandparent have to take a backseat when a grandchild becomes a full-time resident. And that requires grandparents to walk a tricky tightrope between the relationship they want to have with their grandkids and the one they need to have.

The circumstances that require grandparents to become custodial caretakers are seldom positive. For one reason or another, their adult offspring have fallen short in meeting the demands of parenthood. For whatever reason--and there many: drug abuse, mental illness, incarceration, divorce, death, a parent's loss of employment, sexual abuse, abandonment and neglect to name just a few--the child is no longer in a place of safety. It usually doesn't feel like an issue of choice for grandparents, but one of absolute necessity.

The transitions are tough. The most amazing and loved grandparents may suddenly be viewed as the villain by kids who don't understand why they can't be with their parent(s).

Z was only eight-years-old when he came to live with me. He drove the point home at dinner one night.

"Grammy, you used to be the best grandmother in the world."

I was about to bask in the warm glow of his affection when he finished his thought, "But as a parent you just suck."

They were among the hardest words I've ever heard. And every part of my heart wanted to retain that title of "best grandmother." My brain, though, focused on the undeniable fact that I was now required to be the parent. It was now my job to draw the boundaries, make the rules, assign chores, check homework and be sure showers were taken and teeth were brushed.

There was still time for reading stories, learning new games and having adventures, but they could no longer be done with the joyful abandonment that comes from knowing that time together is short and therefore more special.

The balancing act for grandparents who care for grandchildren full-time also requires balancing the harsh truth of the situation against the child's sometimes fantasized view of the parents. That's especially tough when grandparents want to assume the blame for the shortcomings of their adult children. The thing that must be remembered is that those adult children made their own decisions, and when those choices put their children in danger, grandparents are not the villains.