September 12 is National Grandparents Day, a time to celebrate all the G-Mas, Mawmaws, G-Pas, and PawPaws. They’re huggers, confidants, chauffeurs, advocates, and sometimes legal guardians.
Annette Hertz of Thornton is one of the estimated 36,459 grandparents responsible for their grandchildren in Colorado, according to a grandfamilies.org report. She adopted four of her grandchildren, ages 5 to 10.
“The kids now call us ‘Meme Mom and Papa Dad,’” she says; the names reflect the dual roles she and her husband play.
There are many reasons grandparents take up the job of parenting again, and many routes to get there, all with varying levels of state engagement, benefits, and challenges. For Hertz, it involved a four-year process with Child Protective Services (CPS) and her daughter, who struggles with mental illness. At one point, 36 people were enmeshed in the family’s various cases and several communication difficulties. The court finalized the adoptions in May 2021. The weight lifted for a moment, but Hertz’ long term goal to move away from the city was cut off; the little ones needed to stay put. She was also aiding her aging mother.
Hertz turned to members of her church, plus support groups including the Grand Family Coalition, based out of Loveland. She’s learned more about the tangled child services system, and has found both practical and emotional support.
When Hertz didn’t know how to do her granddaughter’s curly hair, a fellow grandma walked her through the use of oils and various styles. When fear crept in that any misstep could rip the kids away from her, others were there to let her know they’d been there, too.
“There’s been times in the last four years that I just wanted to throw in the towel and say, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ And they’re the ones that help pull you through,” Hertz says.
According to Gail Engel, founder of the Grand Family Coalition, folks in her group need more support than is given to the general senior citizen population.
“We are not saints, we are just family,” Engel says. “We do not have incomes set aside in the event our children fail, become addicted or mentally ill. We are mortified that child welfare will find us unfit. We are too proud to ask for assistance because when you ask for help they don’t know how to help.”
The Grand Family Coalition provides social activities for youth and guardians, meals at some events, and (pre-COVID-19) a mentorship program through Colorado State University’s Social Work school. They also link to various assistance programs, and advocate for more. Engel notes there is limited funding specific to grandfamilies, and not enough volunteers or respite care options that are trauma-informed or able to deal with behavioral and special needs.
Elizabeth Walden* of Northern Colorado is single and doesn’t have family nearby. She had to give up her career and travels to care for her 12- and 14-year-old grandsons, who’ve been with her now for 12 years; it was the difficult and right thing to do, she says.
For a while things were okay; the boys were in sports and doing well in school, and the family took advantage of Colorado’s various activities. Then the pandemic’s isolation triggered her kids’ post traumatic stress disorder and compounded the negative effects of their ADHD, leaving them anxious and depressed. Walden’s search for mental health support came up short.
The Grand Family Coalition is a wealth of information, according to Walden, but she’s still disappointed with the lack of visibility grandparents in her situation have, and the few sources of specific funding (for example scholarships for kid’s extracurricular activities) coming their way.
“[We could use] just something to say, somebody out there really cares—send some DoorDash or take the kids for an hour,” Walden says. “Just to acknowledge that I’m doing this difficult job.”
At 50 years old, Hertz is on the younger end of her grandparenting support groups. She’s grateful for her advantages (income from work, energy to keep up), but grieves the loss of being just a grandparent. Her Christian faith helps her accept daily challenges. She’s grateful also for therapy, psychology, and neurology analysis which helped her learn about childhood trauma, responses, and ways to make healthier bonds.
The eldest in her care every so often calls Hertz ‘Mom,’ because according to him, she’s “earned the title.” She took time off from her veterinary practice last year and became their teacher. Hertz and her husband helped the kids set routines and get involved in activities. They foster and rescue dogs for the love of the animals, but also to help their kids with emotional processing.
Some days, they take off the parenting hats and have a ‘Yes Day,’ modeled after the movie of the same name.
“We’re grandma and grandpa on that day, we get to spoil them rotten, with certain limitations,” Hertz says. “Those are fun days.”
Need Grand Parenting Support?
Grand Family Coalition hosts monthly peer support groups in Ft. Collins and Loveland (currently virtual) and kinship family nights (childcare available). Their annual Grand Parents Day Picnic is set for September 11 at Boyd Lake State Park, in Loveland. grandfamilycoalition.org
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, through Colorado State University, provides a list of grandfamily support organizations around the state. grg.colostate.edu/support-groups.php
*Not real name.