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When the pandemic first reached our neighborhood in Brooklyn in March 2020, my wife and I faced an anguished decision: Would we stay in the world’s epicenter of a raging virus, or would we seek refuge with her parents in Massachusetts or mine in Georgia?
In the end, we chose to stay in New York, which meant, among other things, that our children got to spend less time with their grandparents, including what would become some of the last months of my father’s life.
The consensus story that we and so many others have told in the last few years is that the pandemic created a crisis in grandparenting. With children considered at high risk for being asymptomatic carriers and grandparents considered at heightened risk for hospitalization and death, many families, including ours, canceled longstanding rituals and remained apart for everyone’s safety.
But with hindsight—and a host of new studies—it now seems clear that the conventional narrative was incomplete at best and perhaps downright wrong.
The pandemic proved to be a boon for grandparenting—and not always in ways that were positive.
Let’s take a step back for a second.
Until the late 19th century, most American children lived with their grandparents. With life expectancy short and most work happening at the home or on the farm, parenting and grandparenting happened in the same household at the same time. What scholars called the corporate family, as opposed to the nuclear family, constituted what Steven Ruggles of the University of Minnesota estimates was 90 percent of American families.
As Americans fled rural areas for urban areas during the industrial revolution, these numbers plummeted. By the 1940s, a majority of American children were being raised apart from their grandparents by parents who turned their backs on many of the outdated philosophies of the parents who raised them.
That trend began to reverse in the last 20 years as more women flocked into the workplace and more families turned one again to grandparents for help. As the historian Sarah Stoller wrote in the Washington Post last year, in 1980, just 12 percent of Americans lived in corporate families; by 2020, the number was 20 percent.
A 2008 study by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies found that 3.3 million children under 5—that’s 30 percent—were under the care of their grandparents for some period of time every week, while another 4.7 million children between 5 and 14 were also regularly in the care of their grandparents. The list of famous Americans who were raised in large part by their grandparents includes Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Carol Burnett, Jack Nicholson, Willie Nelson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
Also, though he wasn't American, the Greek god Zeus!
That brings us to the pandemic and three ways it changed the landscape of grandparenting.
1. MORE FULLTIME GRANDPARENTS
A million Americans have died from COVID-19. Beginning last year, officials tracked how many of those were the primary caretaker of children at home. An NIH study last year put the number at 120,000. By January, AARP reported that the number had risen to 167,000. By April, the Imperial College of London showed that the number had reached 200,000. The CDC found that two-thirds of those deceased parents were people of color.
The family members who largely replaced those primary caretakers were grandparents. To put these numbers into perspective: Before the pandemic, Generations United reported that 2.6 million children lived in grandfamilies, where grandparents played a primary role. That figure has now grown by 10 percent. As the New York Times summarized the state of affairs within families last month in a headline, As Families Grieve, Grandparents Step Up.
2. MORE PART-TIME GRANDPARENTS
Full-time grandparenting is not the only role that’s been boosted by the pandemic; part-time grandparenting has surged, too. The economist Alicia Sasser Modestino of Northeastern University, and colleagues, released a study of 2,500 working parents last year reporting that a third of working parents with children under five were relying on grandparents for backup care amid school and day-care closures.
3. MORE COUNSELING GRANDPARENTS
The final burden that has fallen even heavier on grandparents is grief. In the case of families, grandparents who are grieving the loss of their own children suddenly find themselves forced to help raise their grieving grandchildren, too. Groups like Roberta’s House in Atlanta and Imagine in New Jersey offer serves that help children grieve.
As Lane Pease Hendricks, the program director at Kate’s Club in Atlanta, told the Times of the grieving children, “Their parents went away to the hospital, and that was the last time they saw them. Some families had to delay funerals until very recently, and that lack of ritual leaves families floundering.”
Since time immemorial, grandparents have been the first line of defense of parents who were unable or unwilling to care for their children. The corporate family should be seen as the historical norm, while the nuclear family is historical aberration. For a pandemic that in many ways accelerated societal change; in this regard, it returned us to a reality that maybe we ran away from far too quickly.
Welcome back, Granny and Gramps. Sorry it's under these circumstances, but we’ve missed you.
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cover image ©OneInchPunch via Canva.com