In some of Macon’s neighborhoods, 1 of every 10 families is led by someone whose grandchildren live with them. That’s among the highest rates in the state, according to recently-released U.S. Census Bureau numbers.
But on a countywide level, rural Middle Georgia counties also have high percentages of households with children living with their grandparents.
And quite often, those grandparents are raising grandchildren -- and sometimes even great-grandchildren -- years after their own sons and daughters left home, bringing both love and complications into households that may have already started slowing down.
Mary Clayborn of Warner Robins has been raising two great-grandchildren for about five years -- Harmony, who just started kindergarten, and her 7-year-old sister, Jalaiyah.
She said there are challenges -- just before school started, she discovered that Harmony hadn’t had all her vaccinations -- but none she can’t handle.
She declined to say how she came to be raising her great-grandchildren as a widow, just that it’s a long story.
When asked if she loves her great-grandchildren as her own, Clayborn replied, “probably more.”
The strain of raising children much later in life can take its toll.
Stacey R. Kolomer, an associate professor of social work at the University of Georgia, said grandparents raising children have more mental and physical problems than other people of the same age. Much of that is because caregivers tend to push aside their own health problems to focus on the children.
Grandparents and children alike worry about what would happen if something happens to the grandparents.
“The danger with grandparents is they’re already the safety net, so if something happens to the grandparents, a lot of time there’s no backup plan for what happens to these kids,” Kolomer said, “because the grandparents are the backup plan.”
Research shows caregiving grandparents also tend to be poorer, so there’s less ability to care for themselves in their retirement age while they’re raising the children.
Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia demographer, said grandparents are more likely to raise children when the children are born to single mothers.
The mothers need to work outside the home to pay living expenses and commuting costs, and child care isn’t cheap.
“As a result, the woman’s parents take on extra responsibility, and they do it. It’s a cultural phenomenon,” Bachtel said.
That cultural phenomenon is seen in both urban and rural areas, according to a Telegraph analysis of 2010 census statistics.
While Macon has some of Georgia’s highest rates of grandchildren living in their grandparent’s house on a neighborhood level, the highest rates across entire counties come in relatively rural and poor places.
Statewide, 3.4 percent of family households are led by someone whose grandchildren live with them. In Hancock County, it’s nearly double that, at 6.7 percent, the fifth-highest in the state. Other counties with high rates of grandparent-led homes include Wilkinson County at 6.3 percent and Twiggs County at 6.1 percent.
Bachtel said the births to single mothers tend to create cycles of poverty.
That cycle can be broken -- with role models or the mothers placing a high value on their children’s education, he said. But Bachtel said grandparents also can learn from any mistakes they made with their own children and bring greater wisdom and experience to newer rounds of child rearing.
Juvenile Court Judge Philip Spivey with the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit said grandparents dealing with fractured families sometimes struggle.
Sometimes, he said, “when (children) haven’t had a father and the mother gets locked up for drugs, the grandparent can’t control the behavior.” Spivey said the family situation might make the children more likely to rebel, have emotional problems and start a criminal career.
“The psychological consequences to a child of having been abandoned by his or her parents cannot be overestimated,” Spivey said. “It’s a serious social problem.”
It’s not clear exactly how many people running a house with their grandchildren are actually raising the grandchildren.
Census estimates from the separate American Community Survey suggest that for one part of Middle Georgia, about 10,700 families have grandchildren living with them, and that in about 6,700 of those families, the grandparents are actually responsible for grandchildren. In about 5,000 of those cases, the grandparents had been caring for the children for at least a year. The data come from estimates for a region consisting of Bibb, Peach, Houston, Twiggs, Laurens, Johnson, Wilkinson, Baldwin, Putnam, Jasper and Jones counties.
Finding a better way
But some Middle Georgia grandparents raising children are trying to find another way.
Sharon Collins of Macon, a 41-year-old grandmother, said she and her husband, Benjamin, are working to be good role models and raise their grandchildren with Biblical principles. Sharon Collins said she may be more tired than her friends, but is making the best of her situation.
“The children need to be nurtured and loved,” she said. Raising them with good values has “been a challenge, but I feel like it will pay off if we stay the course. We have to be our children and our grandchildren’s role model.”
The Collins family gets help from the community and its church.
Benjamin Collins, who at 39 has no children of his own but became a step-grandfather, said he sees other children in the neighborhood largely left to take care of themselves. He worries what that might mean.
“I think that comes from the mothers having them so young. They’re children having children,” he said.
Others have gotten help from all over. Gwen Lancaster, of Lizella, has been making arrangements for four grandchildren she’s raised during the past 16 years. Lancaster, 57, has Stage IV cancer and is hoping to see grandson Blake Cannon, 16, graduate in August from Fort Gordon’s Youth Challenge before she dies.
“I just thank God allowed me to be able to live on this Earth and share in my kids’ life,” she said.
As she became ill, two grandsons were taken in by The Methodist Home for Children and Youth, and a granddaughter was taken in by a family friend, Lancaster said.
Community members have put a roof on her house, painted, cleaned and donated Christmas presents. She’s made final arrangements.
“I want to pass here at the house,” she said. “I want my grandchildren to be with me.”
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.