Defining grandfamilies

There’s a new sociological word floating around our communities these days, though the concept is almost as old as time—grandfamily. Grandfamilies are grandparents and their grandchildren as a family unit, without the parents in between, because they cannot or will not take care of their own offspring.
In “You’ve Always Been There for Me,” Dunifon interviews and studies 59 grandfamilies. She talks with grandparents and their grandchildren together, and then separately. Their stories are often heartbreaking. But what emerges most from the interviews is the strong bond of love between grandparents and their charges.

When they decide (or are forced) to raise their grandchildren, grandparents face several challenges. Most are ready for or are in retirement, enjoying the time they have to themselves. Raising a child is very expensive, and many are on fixed incomes. Grandparents often don’t know their roles—should they seek custody or adopt? How do they find resources?

Should they be called mom or grandma? What parental rights do they assume? How do they navigate parental visits or forbid them if their grandchild is in danger? It takes energy to keep up with a toddler. And it’s difficult dealing with raising a teenager in a plugged-in society that didn’t exist when they were the same age. Many grandchildren come with behavior problems, and sometimes babies come addicted. Grandparents don’t have time to reflect on and prepare for these issues. At least in Dunifon’s interviews, grandfamilies often form suddenly, collision-like.

Meanwhile, the grandchildren have their own issues. Are their parents their friends or their mothers? Why did their parents foist them off in the first place? Why have their parents kept one child but not the other? When they visit their parents, whose rules do they follow? They get embarrassed when their grandparents bring them to school functions because they are so old. Will their grandparents die, leaving them on their own? Though they get their needs met, they might not live like their peers, at least in regard to the newest clothes or having the latest iPhone.

Despite all these hardships, Dunifon’s interviews show that most of the 59 grandfamilies love each other and express that love. Somehow they make it work, and in hindsight, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Most of the grandkids end up staying with their grandparents into adulthood. The primary conclusion from the author is, as this demographic builds, grandfamilies need much more support than they currently are getting—from their local communities to the federal level.

I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in sociology, and for all who know or are part of a grandfamily.