Chris Wirfel is always a grandmother, but for a good portion of every week, she acts like a parent—to her grandchildren.
Her daughter and son-in-law have jobs that require sometimes long, sometimes unusual hours, so they don’t fit neatly into the schedule of a day-care center. And besides, day care is expensive. So she has taken on the daily care and rearing of the youngsters as a way to help the family financially and, more important, because she loves them.
“It works for us,” Wirfel says. “If we didn’t get to take care of them, we’d never get to see the darn things. What use is having grandchildren if you never get to see them?”
It’s an increasingly common scenario in Delaware. Thanks to dual-income lifestyles and an economy that, for many couples, precludes stay-at-home parenting, many grandparents have taken on a powerful new role.
Some elect to be caretakers to help the family financially, though it’s difficult to say how prevalent that trend is. Other grandparents are stepping in to care for children of parents who are incarcerated, addicted, jobless, homeless or experiencing some other hardship. “It’s a challenge for people, whether they have the financial resources or not,” says Sue Getman, executive director of the Wilmington Senior Center.
The Grandparent Resource Center at Wilmington Senior Center estimates there are 7,500 such grandparents in Delaware. Child Inc. serves about 1,250 grandparents through parenting classes, which are often required for the legal custodians to qualify for state or federal benefits.
“It would be nice to think people would want to be better parents—and sometimes that happens—but people in our classes are usually referred by the state,” says Denise Enger, coordinator for parent education and family support programs for Child Inc.
Debra Paul, 60, of Newark, has been caring for her 2-year-old granddaughter since December. She has taken Child Inc.’s classes not only to qualify for benefits—
her situation was complicated by an emerging heart problem—but also to find out how to be a better caregiver.
“I learned a lot,” Paul says. “I’ve learned how to give her the help she needs and get the time I need. I’ve learned how to be more loving and compassionate, and I’ve learned how to let her know she’s safe and secure.”
Such grandparents are creating a type of extended family that is reminiscent of earlier times and communal notions of child-rearing, becoming powerful influences on children when young minds are most impressionable—and at a time of life when, supposedly, they have earned a chance to relax or pursue the dreams they had for their later days. Nonetheless, “I thoroughly enjoy doing this,” says Mimi Lovelace of Newark, 65, a retired teacher who, with her husband, Dave, regularly watches 2-year-old granddaughter Farah. “She is my reason for getting up in the morning.”
It can be exhausting. Lovelace has a regular schedule of visits to the library, the pool, the playground, The Little Gym and music classes—places where she regularly sees other grandparents of her acquaintance.
“It can get stressful at times, and it is tiring, but it’s a choice that we made,” says Wirfel, 62, who, with her husband, Jim, has watched their three grandkids for hours each week at their home in Kemblesville, Pa. “It keeps us on our feet. We get plenty of exercise. It keeps your brain busy, because you have to come up with things to do.”
Today’s caregiving grandparents seem more suited to the role—and eager to take it—than ever before. They are generally an energetic bunch, with a deep reservoir of experience and, possibly, patience—something that doesn’t necessarily make them better at raising kids, but maybe less prone to make rookie mistakes.
From the parents’ perspective, having older caregivers provides benefits beyond mere babysitting, especially in a time when there is more to teach children and more pressure to do it right. “I need help raising these children so they can become productive members of society,” says Farah’s dad, Saad Soliman of Newark. “We can’t combat everything as working parents.”
With grandparents as part of the team, parents say, there is greater assurance of closer, more personal attention than a day-care center might provide. In the same way, Grandma and Grandpa come to realize how crucial it is to have the parents’ support, to know that situations will be dealt with quickly and agreeably by Mom and Dad.
“There is a sense of possessiveness about these children that is not yours to have,” Lovelace says. “This is not your child. They need their parents.”
And for the kids? It seems certain that, for many, childhood will be a richer experience, one that includes more people who love them with every fiber of their being. “It’s hard,” says Paul. “But I’m content to be a parent again. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Freelance writer Eric Ruth contributed to this article.