Raised By My Grandparents
“Parenting requires sacrifices, it’s unavoidable. My biological parents were unwilling and often unable to sacrifice their sobriety, time, or lifestyle so instead, they sacrificed their relationship with me. It’s taken a lifetime to soften around the edges and empathize with the hold addiction had on them both. For much of my adolescence and even into my 20s, I was angry they repeatedly chose to be bound to their vices… it wasn’t until my father’s untimely death at 52 that I was able to stand back and look at his life with a bit more grace.
He, like most everyone who suffers or has suffered from addiction, doesn’t choose to be in active addiction. Most of them, at some point, chose to self medicate, chase a high that can drown out their demons, let loose at a party, or treat an injury or an ailment with a prescribed narcotic… and before they can rally the strength to walk away, they’re trapped.
As a child, I felt discarded and in order to start healing, my mind had to shift from ‘they chose drugs over me,’ to ‘they chose drugs over everything, including their own healing.’ Many will argue it was never a choice at all because once addiction takes root, it becomes a mental illness; like anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression. As someone who instantaneously stopped abusing nicotine, drugs, and alcohol when I became pregnant at 14, I struggle to fully accept this mentality.
I wish I knew why some people can find freedom and others die addicted… but that’s a discussion for another time. For the sake of what I have to say now, the reader just needs to know I was born to two people who fought addiction most of their lives, rendering them incapable of parenting me.
In their absence, my paternal grandparents sacrificed their retirement to step in as my caregivers. I still smile thinking about the story Granny shared of Pa in the middle of a poker game; ‘I fold boys, my baby needs me.’ I can almost see the jovial smile he wore before confidently walking off to sit in our old bentwood rocker to lull me to sleep.
Granny said he was the only one I’d let rock me to sleep, probably because she worked the night shift at the candy factory for the first few years of my life while Pa was an entrepreneur and roofer through the day, thus home to establish a bedtime routine with me after Granny left for work every night. His poker games didn’t last much longer but it was a small sacrifice he willingly made to be the stability I needed.
My grandparents didn’t handle every aspect of kinship care well, but what parent actually gets it all right? None that I’ve met. For whatever shortcomings they did have, they never once made me feel like a burden. I was told regularly how much they loved me, wanted me, and were grateful for me. And yet, I still remember apologizing for taking their golden years from them.
Grandma looked me in the eyes and reassured me once more, ‘Raquel, you didn’t take anything from us, you added to our lives. You were exactly what we needed.’
Words like needed and wanted were akin to soothing balm on an irritated wound, but similar to balm, those words wore off and needed to be reapplied often. Kids in care — foster, kinship or even adoptive — more often than not feel like a burden, even if their caretaker has never vocalized similar feelings.
Because truthfully, vocalized or not, we are acutely aware we are not where we were meant to be and that alone feels like abandonment or rejection. This is imperative to keep in mind for those who find themselves in the position of caregiver for a child they didn’t birth.
Raising My Half-Sister
I was 24 years young when my biological half-sister was born. I was married, parenting our three-year-old, and had left my job at a local bank to be a stay-at-home mom just six months prior. Unfortunately for my infant sister, the biological father we shared and her young birthmother were not quite as stable at the time.
My husband and I offered respite and before that baby ever understood words, I would carry her close to my heart and whisper, ‘You are so loved sweet girl,’ both because she was, and because I knew how valuable those words would be to her.
When that sweet girl was older and had already started calling me ‘mama,’ I never hesitated to remind her how valuable she was. And when that valuable little girl walked out of the courthouse after our adoption hearing, nearly five years later, I’ve never stopped telling her how grateful I am that I get to be her mama.
We acknowledge the hard feelings of missing our late birthfather and the evolving feelings of establishing a healthy relationship with her birthmother… but we never, for a day, fail to make sure our kids understand they are loved, needed, and wanted.
Intentional With Our Words
It matters that we are intentional in letting our children (biological or not) know they add to our life, not take away. ‘You’re driving me crazy,’ may fall on deaf ears to a biological child, but become a nagging concern for a child who has experienced mental instability and abandonment. ‘I don’t want to look at you right now,’ may easily bounce off a biological child in a safe home, but feel like rejection to a child who has a parent that consistently misses visits.
Like it or not, words carry more weight with kids who already question their worth. Frequently these feelings present as difficult behaviors, making it easy to slap a ‘bad kid’ label on a child who really needs therapy, coping tools, time, consistency, and empathy.
Unfortunately, in kinship care especially, many parents stepping into these roles are not only balancing the added responsibility of an additional child but also their own personal hurt over birth parent choices, lack of resources, added financial strain, difficult behaviors they are not prepared to parent, and sometimes their own unhealed trauma too.
While it may feel extra heavy, that weight is ours to bear, not the child’s. We must be mindful if we are going to raise a generation capable of healing from primal wounds.
Pa passed away in 2017. He was my best friend, my biggest supporter, my father figure. Good Lord, I miss him so much it hurts… but looking back, I’ve never once had to question if he loved me, wanted me, or was proud of me. Because he didn’t just say it, he showed it every time he showed up, intentionally and by choice.
His love remained even when my behaviors were difficult, and often dangerous. He never withdrew, even if he expressed concern or disappointment. He was steadfast… and steadfast is exactly what every child needs.”
Read more from Raquel here:
‘We will not ask our daughter to celebrate when she feels the pangs of grief, nor will we tell her to grieve when she feels like dancing.’: Adoptive mom talks giving kids choice to celebrate adoption anniversaries
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