Grandparents raising grandchildren: Advice from the trenches

Regular Grandma's Briefs readers may be familiar with Sally Kabak. She often comments here on Grandma's Briefs, was featured as a Grilled Grandma nearly two years ago, and she's founder of a popular New Zealand blog for and about grandparents raising grandchildren. Sally recently wrote a book on the topic, called Grandchildren, Our Hopes and Dreams: A Practical and Modern Guide to Raising Grandchildren.

Sally's book is exactly what she says it is: a practical guide for grandparents raising grandchildren. She begins the book by sharing the story of how she and her second husband, Norman, found themselves leaving New York in 2007 to live in New Zealand (Sally's birthplace) to raise Sally's granddaughter, Lucy. It's a heartbreaking and unflinching story of a Lucy's daughter who was addicted to drugs and unable to adequately care for her children, which led to Sally and Norman's decision to step up and care for Lucy while her mother got professional help. They thought it would be for a period of six months; it turned out to be permanent, as Lucy's mother refused to connect with addiction recovery counselors. After sharing her personal circumstances, Sally devotes the rest of the book to practical childrearing advice for grandparents—and parents, too.

Here, my dear friend from New Zealand—whom I've never met but hope to one day—shares answers to some of my questions about her book and Lucy, as well as additional advice for grandparents in similar situations.

Grandma’s Briefs: Your book is primarily a parenting guide, with an abundance of practical tips and advice on a broad spectrum of topics: eating, education, sleep habits, Internet use, drug abuse, sex education and more. Why did you want to offer such information to grandparents?

Sally Kabak: After much thought I decided that these topics couldn’t and shouldn’t be left out. As grandparents our knowledge in these areas may have become limited. We need to know what signs to look out for especially when it comes to drug abuse. I missed the signs with my daughter. I didn’t have the information or the knowledge of what to look out for. If I can save one grandchild taking a path of self-destruction then I believe I’ve done a good job. It may have been many years since we raised our own children. Life is so different these days from when I was raising my own children. To have knowledge about different topics that may or may not be sensitive is necessary.

Grandma's Briefs: What is the biggest change from parenting when your kids were young to parenting now?
Sally Kabak: The changes are remarkable.
There is the internet.
Drugs are more freely available.
Many teenagers want to have sex.
Television has much more violence and sexual content than what there was when my children were growing up.
Using the “f” word is common practice.
Many children have their own computer.
There is much more peer pressure, for example if a child has a pair of designer jeans then every child wants a pair so that they can fit in.
Schooling is different; computers are now used in many areas.
Children travel overseas much more frequently.
This is just to name a few of the changes that have occurred over the years.

Grandma's Briefs: You advise grandparents in similar situations, "Don't be afraid to ask for help." Where do you get help?
Sally Kabak: I tend to talk to anyone that will listen to me about raising a grandchild, hopefully not to the point of boredom. I find that it helps alleviate he stress that I sometimes feel. It is good to get another person’s opinion on how they would deal with a certain situation.
Shortly after I started my blog I decided to start a closed Facebook Group. Even though there are not many members we all share a commonality. We all support each other through the good and bad times.
Grandma's Briefs: As a grandparent raising a grandchild, what is your biggest challenge each day?

Sally Kabak: Getting up in the morning! Seriously though, one of the biggest challenges for me is not having a meltdown. I thrive on routine, if it gets out of kilter my whole day seems to turn upside down and that is when I completely lose the plot. I worry a lot about my daughter and her safety which can impact dramatically on my day.

Grandma's Briefs:
What is your greatest reward each day?
Sally Kabak: First thing in the morning Norman and I have a coffee in the lounge before we start our day. Lucy comes in climbs on my knee, snuggles her head into my neck, wraps her arms around me, and gives me the best hug in the world. For me this is the biggest reward and the best way to start off my day.

Grandma's Briefs:
You advise grandparents raising grandchildren to be sure to have "me time" and regularly address their own needs. What about "couple time"? How do you and Norman find time to nurture your relationship as a couple?
Sally Kabak: Unfortunately this is one area that we sadly miss out on. Norman spends most of his day in his office on the computer. We do go out and have lunch however that is only for about half an hour not enough time to re-group and become a couple again.
On a Saturday afternoon we do spend some quality time together. We usually play a game of Scrabble while Lucy is doing her own thing.

Grandma's Briefs: What was your greatest resource for the book?

Sally Kabak: The material for my book comes from many sources. The internet and newspapers having the most information I required. My dear friend Bron was such a help in many fields.

Grandma's Briefs: You mention planking and the choking game as serious concerns. How do you stay on top of current concerns like these that grandparents should be aware of?

Sally Kabak: The best way to get information about dangerous games is reading the paper and the news online. It keeps me up to date on what is happening in this area and of course many other areas as well.

Grandma's Briefs: What was the most difficult part of writing the book?

Sally Kabak: The most difficult part was writing the sad story about my daughter. It bought it all back to me. If I was hoping that it would have given me some sort of closure it didn’t, I don’t believe that will ever happen.

Grandma's Briefs: What are you doing different with your granddaughter to ensure she doesn't follow the same path as her mother?
Sally Kabak: This is my second marriage and is so much different from my first. I do not constantly have to protect myself or my children from verbal abuse. Therefore I'm able to be more focused on Lucy and her needs. My ex-husband wouldn't let my children think for themselves; therefore they really couldn't grow into well rounded adults. With Lucy I encourage her to think for herself and not to be afraid to ask questions. I constantly tell her that she can talk to me about anything and if she is having a problem then tell me about it so that together we can be resolve the issue.

There are absolutely no guarantees that Lucy won't follow the same path as her mother. I firmly believe that because she is in a stable, loving environment with grandparents who love her dearly there is a very good chance she won't travel down the same road as her mother.

Grandma's Briefs: Is there anything else you'd like to add about Lucy? About raising grandchildren? About your book?
Sally Kabak: Lisa, there is so much to add about Lucy. She has a loving gentle nature and those that she loves she does so with all her heart and soul. For one so young she has a remarkably mature sense of humour. When I’m upset she’ll come and put her arms around me. Lately she has taken to writing me little notes to ease my distress, saying how much she loves me. I cherish them and have kept every single one as they are priceless.

Raising grandchildren has its challenges; it has good day and bad days. What we as grandparents have to remind ourselves is that it is not our fault that we are raising our children’s children. Our children are grown up and have taken a path in life that we are not happy about and we are literally left holding the baby.
Raising a grandchild is hard work. There are times when I envy the grandparents that have their grandchildren for the day then they return to their parents. Having said that I wouldn’t swap what I’m doing for the world. Keeping our grandchildren safe should be our prime importance.
I wrote the book with the intention of helping others who are in the same situation. I would like to see it given to grandparents when they take on such a huge responsibility. Many grandparents are unable to afford to have a computer as they are financially stressed therefore my book would help those people get the information quickly and easily.

Grandchildren, Our Hopes And Dreams is available in softcover and electronic versions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and XLibris.

Today's question:

What is the longest period of time you've been the primary caretaker for one or more of your grandchildren?