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Interview with Elaine Williams on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Before I read The Sacred Work Of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren I’d never heard the term, parenting grandparents. These devoted grandparents are raising 4.9 million U.S. children today. According to author Elaine K. Williams, their work is both sacred and noble. Williams is a grandmother and although she is not raising her grandchildren, she understands this magical bond, and on a cellular level knows why grandparents raise their grandchildren when life calls them to do this. I was so deeply touched by Williams’ insight, empathy and understanding, I interviewed her to learn more about her book.

What made you write this book?

The book actually found me. I was in Washington D.C. and heard Hillary Clinton addressing 1,000 parenting grandparents who were attending their first national rally. I sat down to listen and the Ohio/Indiana contingent adopted me and invited me to their dinner that night. I was totally overwhelmed by their stories, challenges and commitment to their grandkids.

When I learned that 1 out of 10 children were being raised part or full time by their grandparent(s), I wondered why I had not heard this before. Why is this not known by the public? Why aren’t we talking about this?

The following year I interviewed 60 parenting grandparents around the country and began writing. My work with children and elders lent itself well to understanding their issues, and when I realized there was nothing out there for kinship caregivers to understand the social, psychological, emotional, physical, or financial challenges related to the loss and trauma their grandchildren were experiencing, I decided to write the book.

As a national speaker, I thought I could get the public’s support for what these grandparents are doing. Three years later, when my second draft of the book was coming to completion, my sister became a parenting grandparent to her two grandchildren. I threw that draft out and started again because now I really “got” it. I decided to use the grandparents’ stories as the theme for the book to honor their enormous sacrifices on behalf of their grandchildren.

Why do you call it sacred work?

When I saw and understood the complex challenges these grandparents face on a daily basis, I realized what they were doing was beyond extraordinary. It was noble and sacred. When I meet a 69-year old grandparent who just adopted her infant granddaughter, I am in awe. When I talk to grandparents about their own adult child and how they struggle to cope with their own child’s alienation and emotional problems, I wonder how they get through the day dealing with their guilt, shame, worry, fear, and upset.

When I see their sacrifices—retirement time and money and how many go back to work part or full time to make ends meet; or how they have lost their friends and social circle who negatively judge them for raising their grandchildren, I think to myself “this is beyond what anyone could possibly expect from a human being.”

When I see them move beyond their own physical limitations or illnesses, or their fatigue and lack of privacy, to raise their grandkids in a loving, secure, safe home, I don’t know any other word other than “sacred” that reflects the depth of their commitment to their grandchildren. The notion that grandparents are pushing again the natural flow of the life cycle in order to give their grandchildren a chance at a meaningful life is sacred work!

What was it like to meet and interview these families?

I interviewed over 60 parenting grandparents for my book and since it was published in September, 2011, I have interviewed at least 40 more, including my own sister. It is both humbling and overwhelming to hear their stories. Silently, I often wondered, “How do you do it?” “Where do you get the strength and resolve?”

I have learned a lot from these grandparents and become even more inspired to share their stories with the public and advocate for and with them. They are filled with “an internal spirit” that is not influenced by age or intelligence. It’s the strongest life force I’ve ever witnessed and dwells in their core, in their heart and soul.

What are some traits these families share?

The grandparents share a deep conviction about doing whatever it takes, whatever sacrifices must be made to raise their grandchildren in a safe, secure, loving home. They also hold a deep sadness about what has happened to their own adult child. They feel guilt and shame and wonder what they did wrong with this child. They question themselves over and over again and spend internal energy fending off these deep emotional responses including regret and grief.

The grandparents and grandchildren are trying to cope with an enormous sense of loss of the biological parent/adult child and the grandparent/child roles. Grandparents lose their privacy, their friends and their retirement dream.

Yet, despite these losses and having to take on the difficult emotions and behaviors  their grandchildren display, associated with abandonment, abuse, rejection, or neglect, parenting grandparents  universally are incredibly resilient and resourceful. They will not be dissuaded from doing what they need to do to help their grandchildren feel secure and safe.

What are the toughest challenges?

  • The differences between these two generations are enormous and they must spend time building bridges between each other.
  • The strong emotional and behavioral reactions of the grandchildren. Many kids are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being abandoned or abused which compromises their brain and nervous systems.
  • Having to answer difficult questions, for example: My parents are alive, so why aren’t they raising me? Why is my parent(s) in jail? Will they come back for me? Why won’t they talk to me when they call you?
  • Kids get asked: “Why are your parents so old?” Or, they hear comments like, “Those are your grandparents, they’re too old to raise you.”
  • Grandparents get a lot of criticism and feel judged for raising their grandkids. These judgments come from long-time friends who say, “Those kids aren’t your responsibility, you’re crazy for doing this.” Sometimes their other adult children and other grandchildren resent the lost time with them and even get angry.

What can we learn from your book?

My book offer tips to parenting grandparents about how to cope and deal with their challenges. When I reviewed the literature, there was nothing to help grandparents understand this millennial generation or why it is so important to talk truthfully about the tough issues and questions their grandkids face and ask.

I tried to take what I knew about child development, trauma, grief and loss, the psychological and emotional components of abandonment, abuse, rejection and neglect and weave it into the book in a way that grandparents could understand. I told their stories and then threaded information that would give them solutions, understanding, confidence and hope.

I explain why honesty is so important for their kids to trust them. The older generation was raised to be polite and courteous not forthright. So grandparents have to push through this and become stronger role models for their grandchildren.

I offer strategies to handle their adult child’s manipulation and threats and setting boundaries, developing routines and schedules to make their grandchildren’s lives more predictable and consistent.

I talk about ways to communicate non-verbally since many children have become withdrawn, if not silent, as a result of their traumatic experiences.

I offer resources to support grandparents raising their grandchildren.

What can we do to help?

Talk about this growing trend to the public, to our local, state and federal legislators. Help them understand that this growing trend is impacting everyone, whether they know it or not. We are all stakeholders when it comes to raising children and ensuring them a successful and meaningful childhood and life.

Though local, state and federal budgets are shrinking, we need to find innovative ways to support kinship families and make sure they have the resources they need to cope with the many, complex challenges they face. When 1 out of 10 children are traumatized to the degree they must be raised by their grandparents, this does not bode well for the future of America’s family unit. If the very foundation of the family is weakened, then our societal structure is also weakened. The cost may seem financially prohibitive now, but it will be nothing compared to the societal cost of trying to cope with “generational trauma!”

We all need to take ownership of creating a strong future for our children. We need to stop judging and blaming, which divides us, and start coming together with a common vision of a country whose children are safe, secure and our number one priority! We all need to speak up and speak out on behalf of our children and advocacy cannot stop until we know our planning, resources, decisions, actions, behaviors, communication all are consonant with our belief that children are our first priority.


2 thoughts on “Interview with Elaine Williams on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren”

  1. One of my Heroes is a friend who is a GREAT GRANDMOTHER raising her great granddaughter. Every day she walks her little 3rd grader to and from school and has been doing so since Kindergarten. I asked her to join us in the GaGa Sisterhood and she said that frankly Sunday is her only day “off” when the working grandmother takes over for a day. My friend just needs to relax that day.
    It’s nice that you did this interview to make us aware of the challenges that the grandparent and grandchild face.
    Kudos to all,

    1. Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story, Diane. I’d love to meet this great-grandmother. She sounds truly remarkable. Her great-granddaughter is blessed to have her in her life. This is exactly the reason Elaine Williams calls it “sacred.”

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