”Oh my God what happened?” Sarah Smalls asked herself a few years ago. “What happened to my life?”
Smalls was the director of the labor relations staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In her mid-50’s, she was dreaming of moving to the Caribbean, at least for the winter. But four and a half years ago, she and her husband Curtis abruptly found themselves unable to go out even to a movie, much less to a tropical beach house, without making “four phone calls,” Smalls explained.
More than 20 years after their only child had moved out of the house, she and her husband had become full-time parents again. They had decided to take custody of their granddaughter, Elizabeth, when she was only one-and-a-half years old. “She was an at-risk child,” Smalls explained.
The Smalls resisted the decision at first. I didn’t really have room in my life to care for a baby,” Smalls said. She was working a “full-time-plus job” that required frequent travel, Curtis was a systems analyst for Verizon. “I didn’t really want to do it,” Smalls said. “I did not, to be honest. I did not. But every time she’d come to the house and I’d see her, I was upset.”
The Smallses’ decision blew apart the life they had spent two decades building. “I didn’t even have a child in my house for 20-plus years,” Smalls said. “You’re talking about getting back to basics.” She said that for Elizabeth’s first year with them, Smalls arose at five each morning to prepare her toddler for a caregiver whose prices were shockingly high. Then she would get herself ready for work at the USDA. When she got home, another batch of duties awaited her. She usually got in bed at 1 a.m to rise again at 5.
“I was so stressed out,” Smalls said. “I was even hospitalized.”
She tried to shift to a lighter workload, but her status as a manager meant her employers would give her no flexibility. Once she had to cancel an importing meeting in New York city with union heads and government officials because she’d had to take Elizabeth to the hospital the night before. “It’s like trying to get up and run the marathon and I don’t even run around the block,” Smalls said. “Life as you know it, my husband says, is no more.”
But the Smallses did not have to raise Elizabeth alone. The girl’s godmother, and Smalls’ sister, brother and cousins all helped her and Curtis raise the child.
Smalls traces the changes in her expression. “If you’d seen Elizabeth in the beginning, she was frightened,” Smalls said. When she looked into her granddaughter’s eyes, this question leapt out, “What’s going to happen to me next?”
Elizabeth is about to turn six. “When I see her face at night or in the morning, I know I did the right thing,” Smalls said. “It’s amazing what you can do when children are shown love and consistency. She belongs. She knows that. She has a family. She knows that.”
ACCORDING TO CENSUS FIGURES provided by the county, in 2000 there were 4,572 grandparents in Fairfax responsible for grandchildren. Seventy-five percent of them had cared for their grandchildren at least two years. Contemporary social issues are contributing to these numbers, but the situation “is not new,” said Colleen Turner, a geriatric social worker with the Department of Family Services. “Families have been raising their own grandchildren and kin for ages.”
The 21st-century version of this arrangement is similar to the Smallses’. Most are between 55 and 65. They are still working, but beginning to think about retirement and how to live with a limited income. “It’s a real hardship because the grandparents by definition are approaching retirement age,” Turner said. “You save for a rainy day. You did not expect the rainy day to be your grandkids.”
In addition to the stress of coping with a new child, the circumstances of that child’s arrival are usually tainted with tragedy and regret.
“It starts with a broken heart,” said Betsy Pugin, from the Department of Family Service’s Area Agency on Aging. “No grandparents are going to take on their grandchild unless something traumatic happened.”
Pugin said death, divorce, illness, drugs, incarceration, AIDS and bankruptcy are all common reasons for grandparents to become caregivers of their grandchildren.
Sandi Dallhoff is a program manager for the county’s Community and Recreation Services. Trying to encourage attendance at the Community and Recreation senior centers, she heard the same story again and again. People couldn’t leave the house because they were taking care of their grandchildren. She sought out other county agencies more directly involved with the project and was put in touch with the Kinship Care Committee, which the county created in 2004. The Committee runs two support groups for grandparents raising their grandchildren.
Although Dallhoff could not relieve their ongoing childcare responsibilities, she worked with the committee to give grandparents and other kin caregivers a chance to take one day off.
This Saturday, the Gum Springs Community Center was bouncing with 15 children and 15 staff members from Family Services and Community and Recreation. Only three of the staff members were being paid to work that day. They organized projects based on the idea that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” including visors, picture frames, magnets, paper family trees, cinnamon and apple potpourri and handwritten books about their grandparents.
Michelle Johnson, 14, stared gamely at her brother Brandon, 13, while she crowed about the girls’ victory over the boys at crab soccer. Michelle said she had initially been dubious of the “early” wake-up the day’s 10 a.m. start time would require. But she was glad she had come, especially for her grandmother’s sake. “She does a lot at home,” Michelle said. “It’s a time for her to relax and hang out.”
Dallhoff said that giving “respite” to caregivers was the main goal of the day. But the staff was also trying to help the children to bond with one another. She described a group of young children getting to know one another in the morning by playing “Never Ever Have I Ever,” a game in which one person at the center of a circle names an activity, and if anyone else has done it, they have to switch places. When one girl said, “I’ve never seen my dad before,” many of the children rushed to find a new spot in the circle. “I think that was a neat experience for her,” Dallhoff said.
When Joyce Brown arrived at 3 to pick up her grandchildren Qwa and Nay she said it was the first time in two years she’d been away from them. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “I had peace of mind. I really enjoyed it. I went for a little walk. I went to Wal-Mart, walked around. And I didn’t have to say ‘Don’t do that. Don’t touch this.’” Brown smiled. “This was the biggest break I ever had. It was wonderful.”