The grandparenting trap
... from retired to just plain tired
At a time when they should be enjoying their twilight years, grandparents throughout New Zealand are taking on the fulltime care of their grandchildren. LUCY CRAYMER looks at the challenges they face and what is provided in the community to assist them.
The kids had grown up and left home. Sue* was making the most of Saturday morning sleep-
ins, evenings out with friends and the odd game of indoor bowls ... and loving it.
But that all changed when 19-year-old daughter Kate* moved back home and announced she was pregnant. First came a baby girl and, only six months later, a second unplanned pregnancy ... this time a baby boy.
While being a grandparent should have topped off an otherwise perfect life, for Sue, of Hastings, it was the end of the life she knew.
After Kate moved in with an abusive boyfriend with an appetite for hitting young children, the 56-year-old grandmother became mother ... second time around.
Sue petitioned for custody and, just before Christmas 2003, was granted interim custody of her two-
year-old and nine-month-old grandchildren, exchanging friends and hobbies for dirty nappies, Hi Five and kindergarten car pools.
``Your whole lifestyle changes. You do it out of love, there is no other reason,'' she says, but is quick to add there are no regrets - her grandchildren are beautiful.
But that doesn't change the cold, hard facts: The past 20 months have been a battle - physically, emotionally and financially. Nationwide, it is a war more than 4000 grandparents throughout New Zealand fight each day and many turn to support group Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG).
The organisation in Hawke's Bay has more than 200 members and branches in Napier and Hastings. Many more use the national service. Nationally, GRG has 31 groups in New Zealand. It aims to bring about changes in structure and Government policy, and educate the public.
Sue was put in touch with the organisation by a Women's Refuge counsellor when she first gained custody of the children.
``Going to the meetings means you see other people are facing the same problems that you are dealing with,'' she says.
It was a brave decision to seek help but one Sue will never regret. Through it, vital information such as how to get financial assistance from Work and Income and Inland Revenue was made available. Better still, it put her in touch with other grandparents going through the same struggle. GRG Hawke's Bay spokeswoman Marcia Neilson Marcia says the organisation tells members everything they need to know but it is also about sharing stories.
``We would love to have more support from the community and the Government at large,'' she says.
Like many, Sue was working fulltime when she started taking care of her grandchildren, but was forced to give up her job. She now survives on an invalid's benefit. ``It's a real struggle, you don't just get money like that and you don't get the same benefit rate as people who foster. Everything I spend is on the children.'' It's not helped by the fact that, second time around, children are a lot more expensive. ``My granddaughter is always going on trips with her kindergarten. There is so much more peer pressure on them now. There is lots of `I want this' and the toys are so expensive.''
Marcia says many grandparents are forced into the red because they don't qualify for legal aid when seeking custody.
``We do not expect anything from the community or society that is not already available to others.
``Indeed, there are several agencies within all communities which have been very helpful to GRGs, especially Birthright Hawke's Bay which has accessed funding to send our grandchildren aged five to 12 to holiday camps,'' Marcia says.
While the financial impact is the most obvious on a day-to-day basis, the emotional and physical challenges can be just as damaging.
``Grandparents need respite because they are not of the age where they can take care of their grandchildren 24/7 like they are doing at the moment.'' Sue says having two children around the house takes it out of her. Even though they go to bed early, evenings are still all about dishes, laundry and tidying up toys. It's a long day - sometimes Sue feels the instant her head hits the pillow it's up again, to greet the children who climb into bed for a cuddle about 5am.
And while that is undoubtedly hard, for Sue it is the effect that fighting her daughter for custody has had on her relationship with Kate that she finds most devastating. She doubts the damage done can ever be repaired.
She also admits to feeling alienated from other caregivers when she picks up the four-year-old from kindergarten. There's not much a woman in her late-50s has in common with a first-time mum in her 20s.
The story is a sadly familiar one for Marcia, who says many families are torn apart over custody fights, especially when they have previously been close.
Marcia says it is a new environment for many of the children when they moved in.
``Grandparents have set bedtimes and the kids are used to just falling asleep in front of the television.''
Grandchildren often have to adapt from living on a diet of fast-
food, fizzy drinks and chips to regular meals.
For Sue, it is the stability she has provided for her grandchildren - with regular bedtimes, meals and activities - that she thinks has made the biggest difference to their lives.
Since GRG began, more and more grandparents have taken on responsibility for children. A study by Massey University honorary research associate Jill Worrall cites parents on drugs and child neglect as the two main reasons grandparents take on the children. Alcohol, mental illness, domestic violence and child abuse are also cited as major contributing factors. They are stories littered with the debris of human tragedy, but Sue can still see the up side.
Her grandchildren have never known another home and, although the younger one is a ``difficult child'', he does not have serious psychological problems. Others are not so lucky. Worrall's study shows many children suffer from conduct disorder, post-traumatic syndrome and severe aggressive behaviour.
Worrall has also written a handbook for grandparents and other kin caregivers with advice about entitlements, problems facing children and how to cope with the role.
Sue continues to battle and will return to court for the seventh time in October. This time she is seeking joint guardianship of the children so if she loses custody of her two grandchildren she will still be able to play a role in their lives.
She holds no illusions about retaining custody indefinitely and knows the courts will probably decide to return them to their mother. As she says this, her voice catches in her throat. Tears threaten.
``I would like to have them until they are both five. At five I think they can say what they really want and what they really feel. ``They will say something to somebody if they don't feel safe,'' she says.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children involved in the case because Family Court rules require it.