By Roz Edward
The Caregivers is a unique series focused on the challenges and triumphs of caregiving. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and Word In Black.
“If I had known how great it is to have grandchildren, I would have had them before I had my own children,” quipped beaming grandmother of five and great grandmother of seven, Lou Vera Smith of Detroit.
Smith opted to raise three of her grandchildren from birth to adulthood, not out of any tragic occurrences with the children, i.e. their inability to care for them, but because she felt she was in a better position to provide for their educational, housing, financial and personal needs. Her children agreed.
While her own kids were responsible working adults, they were, in fact, facing the struggles of limited means to secure affordable daycare, quality education and rearing their children in secure and safe neighborhoods. The tradition of children being raised by their grandparents, especially grandmothers, is a cultural convention for African Americans – who commonly sent their children to live with grandparents in the South as they forged their way through establishing themselves in northern cities during and after the Great Migration of Blacks moving north for jobs and to create a better economic forecasts for their families.
“That’s how my family did it, too. My parents went to New Jersey for work and I stayed with my grandmother in Mississippi until they had jobs and proper housing and could bring me to live with them,” Smith confided.
The single stay-at-home grandmother followed suit and decided that, after finding herself in the position of raising her own three children as a single mother, to step in and guard against compromised living conditions for a second generation and clear a path for improved quality of life for all her children.
“I was a single working mom when my husband and I divorced, and I did what every single parent does … I worked myself into a near frenzy to take care of my children,” Smith said. “I remarried several years later but was widowed at only 42 years of age. By that time, my own children were out of the house, and not only did I experience the empty nest syndrome, I experienced profound emptiness.”
That sadness continued until the birth of Smith’s first grandson, whom she credits with saving her life.
“I was in the delivery room, and when I heard that fragile first cry I knew. I knew I would protect and care for him with every fiber of my being to ensure his well-being… then I had three more grands and I promised them all they would have me.”
While these second-generation youngsters are the source of profound love and joy, they are increasingly becoming full-time charges for a nation of grandparents who find themselves in the role of primary caregivers.
Nationally, an estimated 2.5 million grandparents have assumed the responsibilities – formally or informally – for raising grandchildren on a full-time basis. While many of those in their golden years are foregoing the leisure of retirement and instead taking on the challenge of direct parenting, a number express that the time spent in the parenting “do-over” is remarkably rewarding.
“I get to connect with my grandkids and engage with them on levels I sometimes wasn’t able to as a single parent,” Smith admits.
While many grandparents are rearing children for a variety of reasons, including the maladies of parental substance abuse, physical abuse and neglect, unemployment, incarceration, HIV/AIDS, mental or physical illness, teenage pregnancy, child disability, divorce, military deployment, abandonment, death, and now for pandemic-related reasons — the experience can still be one of great reward and profound joy.
“My kids often joke that every time a child is born into our family it adds 10 years to my life,” added the 84-year-old matriarch. “But now that I have great-grandchildren they’re calling me “grandma” too,” laughed Smith. “That’s not going to happen though. I’m building a legacy for my kids and grandkids that will allow them to live their best lives without me.”