Area grandparents are among those raising or helping care for their grandkids. Sure, it’s more work than they anticipated at this stage of their lives, but several say it is the best choice all around.

ncreasingly, grandparents are trading in their carefree retirement years for changing diapers, baking cookies and joining the soccer car pool. The circumstances that lead to caring for, and sometimes even taking custody of, another generation of children are as varied as the grandchildren themselves, as thousands of grandpas and grandmas gladly put aside careers and a neat house. They’re postponing hobbies, motor home travels and hours of free time to care for the little ones who’ve stolen their hearts.

“I have relatives who think I’ve lost my mind to give up my profession,” says Pamela Cleaveland, 55. Eighteen months ago, she quit her job as an insurance agent at the Dunlap Agency in Auburn to assist in caring for her grandson, Logan, 9, his sister, Emily, 5 and other children at her neighborhood day care.

Two years ago, Cleaveland and her husband, George, made room for son Chris, his wife, Jenny, and the children to live with them in their Poland home so Jenny could finish her nursing degree.

During the first year, the children went to day care, which, it turned out, no one was happy with. Then the family came up with the idea of Cleaveland caring for the children on the days their mother attended classes.

Cleaveland’s own day care evolved from this decision, a solution that goes a long way to helping the children’s parents reach their goals.

“I can’t tell you what rewards there are on a daily basis! I’m so blessed to spend my days with my grandchildren and do the things I couldn’t do with my own children because I was busy making a career for myself,” she said.

“Not many women are able to have this opportunity. I get hugs and kisses during the day, read them stories and fix their hair. We have conversations only a grandmother and her grandchild can understand. We play outside and plant the garden, all the while thoroughly enjoying each other.”

Grandmother Heidi George, 54, of Bowdoin agrees that spending time with grandchildren is very fulfilling. She and her husband, Bob, both retired from Brunswick Naval Air Station, have cared for grandchildren Katherin, Dylan and Jacob since they were born.

“We were the first to see them roll over, crawl, walk and talk. It’s so much fun to have the time to spend with them and not be rushed like we were with our own children,” she said.

The children’s parents both have jobs requiring them to work some weekend hours, so the kids are with their grandparents Saturday night through Monday morning. “Usually when we take the kids home, ranging in age from 6 to 2½, we’re exhausted, but by the middle of the week, we have ‘grandchildren withdrawals.’ It’s so wonderful to care for these three, and without the parental responsibility, it makes it more relaxing than caring for your own children. Bob and I feel it’s the best job in the world.”

Baby-sitting grandchildren on more than an occasional basis isn’t something all grandparents are willing to do, however. Family and friends often wonder why folks on the cusp of having unlimited free time eagerly take up such a commitment, especially when they’ve already raised a family of their own. How do they possibly manage it all? Where do they find the energy? After all, they’re not exactly 35 anymore.

For the Georges, those midweek breaks when they don’t have the children make it easier. Although they miss the children after just a few days, they use the time for their own activities, as well as get ready for the “Romper Room” set’s return. Grammie Heidi says these breaks make her really appreciate the little ones when it’s time to take care of them again.

For some grandparents, however, weekends and downtime aren’t possible considerations.

Cynthia Hamlin, executive director of a nonprofit children’s services organization, Gateway to the Shire, says caring for her grandchildren is a lifestyle she chose years ago.

“I’ve been told caring for children keeps you young. I don’t know if I totally believe that, but I do know I have to be very active to keep up with them and it has been good for my health to do so,” said the Waterford woman. “Some days I open the child-care center at 6:30 a.m. then return home to meet some of the children as they get off the bus in the afternoon. Some days I’m home to put them on the bus in the morning.” Her child-care center, Kids Konnection, is in Norway.

Grandchildren in Hamlin’s care include Autum, 10; and Devlin, 9, who were in her legal custody for several years, as well as Jarryn, 7; Alicia, 7; Hayden, 6 and Jaylie, 1. Another grandchild, along with these six, participates in the day care program, operated by Hamlin, whose mission of caring for children reaches far beyond those related to her.

Adapting an old inn

Hamlin says that during her busy days “I’ve always been able to rely on my faith for my strength in times of plenty as well as in times of dearth.”

Her family situation is unique since she lives in a large historic home in Waterford that was originally an inn and has been extensively renovated. In 1912, her great-grandfather had the inn made into a single-family home to accommodate his family of five children. Years later, Hamlin’s father ordered another renovation, changing the building into an apartment house. It now has three apartments, all for the family.

“This change has served my family well and until very recently, four generations of my family lived here together,” she said. Now three of Hamlin’s four children and five of her seven grandchildren live under this roof with her. Although everyone has their own kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms, apartment doors are usually open, creating common spaces for everyone. Hamlin’s apartment tends to be the space where the large family comes to be together. The children gather to watch a video in the den or roast marshmallows in the fireplace. They also like to be rocked in Hamlin’s great-grandfather’s rocking chair.

“I have friends who see their grandchildren only once a year or so and are very removed from them. This makes me realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have my family close to me and be a real part of their lives and memories. The support system is wonderful and creates an atmosphere of safety. We all have a large variety of skills and interests so there’s always help available, whether it be technical, culinary or just an extra hand is needed for a crying baby.”

Avoiding “disastrous” course

Even though taking care of grandchildren can be a joyous experience, it’s not without challenges, and it’s quite different from a weekly, Sunday afternoon visit.

“The most difficult part is remembering I’m their grandmother and not their mother,” Cleaveland says. “At times I have trouble letting go of the grandchildren when their parents are home. I have to stop and say, ‘Okay, I had them all day. Now it’s their parents’ turn to take over.'” She added that she doesn’t want their parents to think she’s spoiling them.

But isn’t “spoiling” what grandparents do best?

In a situation where they see their grandchildren only occasionally, that can be much easier to overlook in grandparents, but a steady diet of letting children have their own way could be disastrous for everyone. Heidi George admits spoiling can be easy to do. “Grandparents have a little more patience and tolerance at times. We do tend to let them get away with a few things we should probably be stricter about.”

In Cynthia Hamlin’s family, the issue of who was in charge was a difficult transition when the custody of Autum and Alicia was returned to their parents with the condition that they were all to remain in Hamlin’s household for a period of time. She explains, “My son talked to me often about my tendency to interfere with discipline issues and how it undermined their authority and effectiveness as parents. Because I had the responsibility for their care for a number of years, it was hard to let go of the ‘mother mentality’ and become a grandmother. It’s become easier with time and I would like to think I’m more successful at it now.”

Helping the helper

Another concern expressed by some baby-sitting grandmas is that they need plenty of support from other family members, including grandpa.

Pam Daigle, 48, who takes care of her three grandchildren, ages 7 to 3, in her Rumford home, notes it can be difficult on some marriages because so much time is taken up with the little ones.

“Sometimes I have them until 5:45 p.m., making for a long day, and everyone can get a little cranky. Sometimes laundry, dishes or nothing else gets done, and things get to be tense when everything is so topsy-turvy.”

In spite of these concerns, Daigle adds her husband says he knows the kids belong nowhere else but with Nanny. and he helps her whenever he can.

Hamlin agrees it takes time and a great deal of tolerance and patience on the part of everyone involved to make family care for the children successful.

“We’re all different people with different personalities, and there can be conflicts at times,” she said. “Yet, I firmly believe if families have this type of support system, there would be significantly less neglect, abuse, and fewer divorces. What a happier world this would be!”

——–SIDEBAR—–

Thousands of Mainers

raising grandchildren

According to the most recent U.S. Census, in 2000 there were more than 13,000 grandparents in Maine who shared a home with grandchildren under the age of 18. Of those households, 5,000 grandparents were solely responsible for their grandchildren.

Nationwide, more than 2.4 million grandparents were primary caregivers for their grandchildren. The Grandparents’ Information Center at American Association for Retired Persons says that most of these caregiving grandparents haven’t yet reached retirement age and that 64 percent are 40 to 59 years old. The information center is on the Web at www.aarp.org/confacts/programs/gic.html. The information on that Web site includes an order form for a free AARP newsletter for grandparents who are raising grandchildren.

For Peggy Roewer, those numbers aren’t just statistics; raising a grandchild is her life. The 49-year-old Auburn grandmother has full custody of her granddaughter. On disability because of complications from carpal tunnel syndrome, Roewer is no longer able to work in local shoe shops, but the familiar routine of rising early to get to work prepared her for caring for Rianna since the day she was born.

“I believe we all have a purpose here on earth, and mine is to care for this precious gift,” explains Roewer, whose daughter gave birth to the little girl five years ago when she was just 15. During her daughter’s pregnancy, Roewer, who realized her daughter wasn’t up to the responsibility, made the decision that has changed her life.

Although she admits it’s a responsibility she didn’t plan for, Roewer wouldn’t change a thing as she shares her life with Rianna. Even small, daily routines like taking the little girl to preschool or a dance class delight this special grandma who says, “She hugs me so tight and tells me she loves me ‘all the way to the moon and back.’ I’m blessed because I can be with her every day and see that little face first thing every morning.”

With the support of her children and her ex-husband, who visits his grandchild every day, Roewer looks forward to a bright future for herself and Rianna.

“We’ll explore life together and meet the challenges as they come.”


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