Should I raise my daughter's son?

I'm not sure she's up to taking care of him. But this was not in my plans


Cary Tennis
June 17, 2011 5:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My 30-year-old daughter is a divorced single mother who has a beautiful toddler. I adore my grandson, and would do anything for him. However, I'm afraid I may have to adopt him if my daughter does not change her party-girl ways.

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My daughter asks me to baby-sit my grandson nearly every weekend so she can attend concerts and music festivals, or hit the clubs with her single, childless drinking buddies. At first I felt sorry for her, and bought into her story that she needed to "feel like a young adult again" and have a little time to cut loose on the weekends. After all, I was a single mother for several years, and I understand the harrowing challenges faced by single moms. Single moms have no one to share the parenthood journey with; they have no shoulder to cry on when they feel overwhelmed; and they often face dire financial straits alone. When I was a single mom, I put myself through college while working a part-time job and caring for my daughter. I rarely dated or went out, and focused all of my energy on improving our lives. It was a long, hard journey, but we survived and flourished. I eventually met and married a wonderful man, and we now have a young son. We are an active family, and enjoy cycling, swimming, hiking, camping, concerts and other weekend activities, but we can't do these things if we are baby-sitting all of the time. When possible, we take my grandson with us so he can have a sense of belonging and family.

My daughter is gainfully employed, and is able to support herself and her son thanks to the child support she receives from her ex-husband. She claims she is going to get her college degree so she can make more money, but has made only token efforts to sign up for classes. My husband and I are still raising our young son, and had hoped to head into our empty-nester years without stress and problems. Now, however, all I can think about is the possibility that I may have to raise my grandson because my daughter is showing signs of unfit motherhood. If I don't baby-sit my grandson every weekend, she threatens to dump him on friends who she says are more than willing to watch him for her so she can go out on the town. She also contends that I'm worrying too much about her social life and her son's safety. She just doesn't get it.

I'm feeling a lot of resentment and disappointment with my daughter, and I'm stressed out about my grandson's safety. You've read the ugly headlines and horror stories about children left with neighbors, friends and distant relatives. They almost always involve a single mother, a boyfriend and a lot of negligence. (All I can think about these days is the Casey Anthony case.) I worry constantly that terrible things could happen to my beautiful grandson if he is left in the company of people who do not love and care for him as I do. At the same time, though, I feel helpless, powerless and resentful that my daughter thinks she can hijack our weekends, and force us to baby-sit my grandson -- sometimes for two or three days in a row -- so she can go out and party. It would be a different story if she were going to college. At least I'd be helping her improve her life and her son's life.

I also worry about my grandson's early childhood development and his education. He is still not potty trained, but should be. If I don't read to him or take him to the park, he stays indoors in my daughter's tiny condo, sitting alone in front of the TV while she emails, texts and instant messages her friends, and makes plans for the weekends. I've checked her Facebook page, and she has RSVP'd to several events over the next several weeks. Most of her photos involve drinking, partying and going to clubs, and she looks drunk in some of them. She says she doesn't have a drinking problem, but I don't buy it. Every time she goes out with friends, she gets "sick," and expects me to feel sorry for her. I grew up with an alcoholic parent and saw firsthand the horrible effects of that disease. I went the opposite direction, and have abstained from drinking for the most part, except for a few glasses of wine here and there. They say the pendulum swings every other generation. Did I unwittingly create an alcoholic with my teetotaling ways?

I love my daughter, but I'm terrified for her and my grandson. What can I do to help her see that her son should be her first priority? I don't want to enable my daughter's party-girl lifestyle, but I don't want anything horrible to happen to my precious grandson. I fear the only answer is for me to adopt my grandson, even if it puts additional stress on my marriage and our finances. He already calls me Mama. I don't think his father, who is remarried, would want to raise him. It's just so sad.

Worried Grandmother

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Dear Worried Grandmother,

Our lives are stories. When we face choices, what we are doing is creating a story. It helps to think of stories because then we can perform thought experiments. We can see what it would be like.

You can make a decision here that will shape the story that is your life. It will be a sacrifice but it will involve saving a life. Perhaps it will save many lives. It may even save your own, or make it happier. But it will involve sacrifice.

This matter of sacrifice deserves some thought. It may seem as if to raise this child would be to sacrifice a certain life you have all planned out. But if you think about it, you realize that this future life of leisure does not really exist. It may never exist, no matter what you do. I know how this is. We think about the future and begin living that life in our minds, so that when things change, we feel we are giving something up. But we never had it! What we are giving up we never actually had. You cannot lose something you do not have. Also, in imagining a rosy future, we tend to discount the negatives and accentuate the positives, to the point that we fall in love with an idealized version of the future.

So let go, if you can, of that agonizing feeling that in choosing to raise this child you lose something.

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Just imagine raising this child. Also imagine not raising this child. This is just a thought experiment. If you do not raise this child, the child-free life of retirement you imagine may happen. Or you may be burdened the whole time with an escalating set of mishaps and struggles in which you are periodically rescuing your grandson and rescuing your daughter and struggling with her.

Let's be blunt. Her child is not safe. He is not safe when he is with her and he is not safe when she places him in the hands of her friends. And if she is in the early stages of alcoholism, the child is going to become less safe as her addiction escalates. As her addiction escalates, it is likely that she will have mishaps of increasing direness and complexity and gravity, and with each mishap her son becomes less safe. So if she maintains custody of her son the next 15 years could involve continuing battles of growing acrimony and perhaps tragedy.

Or you could make a decision now to press for adoption of this boy. Yes, it would mean sacrificing a life that you were looking forward to. But it would be a beautiful sacrifice. And it would settle things, at least for a while. And it would provide moral satisfaction. It would be the right thing to do. It would be something you could live with. It would allow you to sleep at night.

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It would be selfless and it would be hard. But you could do it. You could do it and it is really the only solution that offers a chance for this boy to grow up well cared for.

It is not as if you have a choice between one carefree life and another burdened with a child. It is a choice between two kinds of burdens. One burden is intermittent, fraught with conflict and uncertainty. The other is clear and ongoing, but with its satisfactions. In neither case do you get what you wish for, at least in the conscious sense. But in one case you get the satisfaction of responding to misfortune with compassion and strength.

So just perform this thought experiment. Imagine these two forking paths, these two possible stories. Then choose one and live with it as best you can, with all the dignity that you have amassed, with all the love and compassion that is in your heart.

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Citizens of the Dream

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Cary Tennis

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