Amid Recession and War, Grandparents Fill Voids With Love

Katti Gray profiles families who don't have much more than each other this holiday season, but are getting by with that much.

By Katti Gray Dec 23, 2010

From 4-year-old Avion Davis came this solitary request: "I want a Christmas tree."

He was all smiles and laughter as his grandmother, Dawn Humphrey, 51, a laid-off Home Depot cashier, swaddled him in the artificial garland that would go onto the artificial Christmas tree in the Monticello, N.Y., home they share with her common-law husband, Vernon Isaac, 59, the only grandfather young Avion has known.

"I haven’t celebrated Christmas in years," said Humphrey, whose unemployment benefits ran out three months ago. "But for him to say ‘Grandma, we need a tree so Santa can come’ was a real motivator. My own three kids never looked forward to Christmas. But his mom did a big Christmas and I have to continue that tradition."

That Avion, born to a single, jobless then-16-year-old mom, has been in the full-time custody of his grandparents for the last six months is emblematic of a nationwide trend, according to a Pew Research Center study. A tenth of all children in the United States–2.9 million kids–lives with a grandparent. That figure spiked 6 percent from 2007 to 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, according to Pew’s culling of the most recent Census data.

Further, according to Pew’s analysis, four out of 10, or 41 percent, of children who live with a grandparent are also being raised primarily by that grandparent. Also, grandparents who are primary caregivers are more common among blacks and Latinos than among whites, but whites in this category experienced the sharpest rise–9 percent–since the start of the recession. That compared to 2 percent among blacks and and no change among Latinos.

For grandparents Humphrey and Isaac, caring for Avion has been no easy feat. Isaac works 20 hours a week cooking at a local homeless shelter in their town of 6,000 people, where Wal-Mart and Home Depot are the major regional employers. The couple spent several months of this year struggling to keep their two-story home, in various stages of disrepair, from being foreclosed on by their mortgager. Things are real tight.

Fortunately, Avion is not a picky kid, they said. He didn’t even send Santa a wish list.

"He didn’t specify what he wanted," Humphrey said. "He just asked, ‘Grandma, is Santa going to put presents under the tree?’ He wanted the tree, that was the main thing. And, yes, I said ‘Santa is going to put presents under the tree.’ I know he will be happy with whatever he gets. We haven’t taught him to look out for expensive things. We let him know that whatever he has is good enough. He does not know the difference between rich and poor, what’s luxury and what’s not."

"He doesn’t know that we’re having a hard time," said Isaac, also a local handyman. "We try not to let him see that. We want him to feel comfortable and loved."

Monticello, in fits and starts, has sought to rev up its long-flagging economy, which once thrived on Catskills tourism. But like many upstate New York municipalities, there’s been no fix as yet. The main drag is a hodge-podge of vacant buildings and mom-and-pop shops. The post office steps have been crumbling over the last several years, though are slated for repair. Village officials have done a major repaving, replete with red-brick medians and brushed steel street lamps, of the town’s two main thoroughfares.

The village has its share of gentrifiers with weekend homes. But it also has the desperately poor who are more likely to buy $10 worth of kerosene to warm themselves against the cold nights of the mountains than to fork over the $3.69 per gallon it costs to fill an oil burner.

"That the economy here has done so bad for so long really isn’t fair at all," Humphrey said. "But we are so thankful that we were able to save our house. When you have little kids around you have to make them comfortable and shield them. When they see you unhappy it makes them unhappy and when they’re unhappy their childhood is removed. And I don’t want any child to suffer that."

There are complexities beyond finances for the growing number of grandparents stepping back into a primary parenting role. Ruth Corbett, who holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling, just this week wound down her stint as a live-in surrogate grandparent to a single mom returning from a year of military duty in Iraq. "Nana Ruth," as she’s known to Deborah DeShong’s three girls–ages 9, 14 and 16–has been their surrogate granny since the girls’ birth. DeShong’s own mother died before her children were born.

Now that DeShong’s back from service, things are tricky. When children are being raised both by grandparents and single parents–a group also identified in the Pew study–it’s essential to guard against what can be colliding and competing ideas on parenting.

"It’s quite an adjustment for the girls," Corbett said of DeShong’s return. "When you’ve been away for a year and someone else has been in your place, even though it’s someone they love, you have to come back and gain your territory. That’s tough work. It’s stressful for her and not stressless for me. As the grandmother, you’re not the mother. You tend to be more lenient. You tend to know a little bit more about the pitfalls of parenting. You’re calmer."

Corbett, who watched DeShong grow up in the Brooklyn, N.Y., church both families attend, continued: "I’m very much a part of the transition back to mom. She’s a year older, and, hopefully, wiser. And the children are, hopefully, wiser. As children would be, they are still angry that she had to go away.They felt really abandoned. How can mommy go to Iraq and she has three children under age and she leaves them? I’ll be doing a back-and-forth with them until everyone’s one on an even keel."

A steady life is what good grandparents desire for their grandchildren, Isaac and Humphrey said.

"Our situation would be ideal if I had a job," Avion’s grandmother said. "We’re not materialistic people but this boy has needs. He looks to us for comfort and for love, when he’s hurt and needs help going to the bathroom. Just hearing him calling be ‘Grandma,’ I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just pure joy."

"Yes," Isaac adds. But, wow, grandparents like us could use some help.This recession, with things as tough as they are … I would love to give him the things I never got. But what I do give him is love. And that’s the most important thing."