Grandma Gets Custody: Is She 'Mom’ Too?

K. Emily Bond

grandparents raising grandchildrenHere’s a stat for thought. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, one child in 10 now lives with a grandparent. That’s 2.9 million kids, a number that has been growing steadily over the past decade and rose sharply during the first year of the Great Recession, from ‘07-’08.

Therefore it is not in a vacuum that blogger Joanna Hutt finds herself, at the age of 67, parenting a toddler yet again. And while her circumstances are unique, they're not atypical. Still, she often wonders, where’s her support network?  

Joanna calls attention to the ups and downs -- legalities and all -- of being a parenting grandparent on her funny and often heartbreaking blog Spittin' Grits. I gave her a call this week to talk about it. Here's what she had to say.

Can you tell me about the circumstances leading up to you becoming a mom all over again? 

My blog has to do with two things: my daughter’s drug addiction and being a parenting grandparent. In my case, of course, one led to the other.

My daughter has a very long, unremitting, unrelenting problem with drug addiction, the worst of all being with methamphetamines. She really tried as hard as she could to stay away from drugs, but when Joanna Lee [now 3 1/2] was born, my daughter wasn't making the changes she had to make. As things got worse, we knew we had to actively step in and protect Joanna Lee.

How did your daughter take you and your husband’s intervention?

In spite of her anger, I feel like maybe -- somewhere underneath all of that -- she knew that Joanna Lee could not stay in the situation she was in.

Will your daughter ever regain custody of Joanna Lee?

In theory the mother can always regain custody. Usually there’s an agreement and it’s more of a custodial situation. That’s quite different from where we are now because we have adopted Joanna Lee. We are literally her mother and father. It’s all very weird.

So why adopt as opposed to maintaining custody until, say, at some point in the future, your daughter pulls her life together?

As my daughter continued to get into trouble, we had to be realistic about the situation. I had to look at my age and say, "Okay, we have got to ensure this child’s future somehow."

My husband and I are both on Medicare, which means that Joanna Lee is entitled to our benefits until she is 19. So I was determined -- determined -- to carry through with this adoption.

Where is your daughter now?

She’s in jail, which is a relief to us somehow. It’s sad. Very, very sad. There are no answers for addicts like this, no choice except to go to jail or end up in a coffin.

If there’s one thing we all share as mothers, it’s this feeling of mortality that creeps in once you have a child. You’re now 67. Does that feeling particularly resonate for you?

Statistics say that the life expectancy of a white woman in America is something like 80. Well, I’ll be doing good if I get to see her get her driver’s license. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have those fears with Joanna Lee because she would have parents, but I have got to be real.

First, we had to make sure we got her adopted, then to get her social security benefits, and change our will. Our next step is to create a Friends of Joanna Lee Advisory Board, probably made up of the children of my close friends, to make sure she gets everything from a cute prom dress to legal or medical advice -- all of those things that I will not be here to help her with.

So your approach to motherhood now seems much more pragmatic than the typically passionate way younger mothers approach the role.

When you’re being real about your age, you know you’ve got to do things differently. I think about certain events in Joanna Lee’s life, like prom or college, or developmental changes like getting her period, and yes the thought of not being here hurts. But I’m countering those feelings with every practical solution I can come up with.

Has your attitude towards drugs changed as well?

I made a commitment to be honest about everything and that’s one of the reasons I started Spittin’ Grits. If I’m going to blog about it, it has to be in the most honest way that I can.

Happy endings in the disease of addiction are rare. Teenagers that are “dabbling” in drugs are really risking a whole lot. With crystal methamphetamine, in particular, it really does eat you from the inside out.

Right now we’re dealing with the profound grief and separation anxiety Joanna Lee is going through. Down the road, one of the scary things for her is how she might be set up biologically to be vulnerable to addiction. I have to get that across to her. The big question is how.

How can we, as a society and as mothers, make the parenting grandparent experience more inclusive?

First of all, we really need to shed a light on what we need to do with drug addiction. We also need to find out how many people out there are caregivers for their grandchildren because of drug addiction. Then we’ve got to move into social policy.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a support network. I joined a community on CafeMom and follow a blog about parenting grandparents, but there’s not a lot out there, to be frank. I’ve found tons of grandparent sites. Those are great for ordinary grandparents, which, if you’re raising your grandchildren, you are not.

The problem with a lot of online parenting sites is that when you join and fill out your profile, you can feel very much like an outsider.


Not anymore, Joanna. Let’s say hello to one of CafeMom’s newest moms. Welcome (back)!


Image via jolien_vallins/Flickr

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