by Gary Garrison
Published by University of Regina Press
Reviewed by Madonna Hamel
$19.95 ISBN 9780889775541
Last week buying groceries, I asked the cashier how her day was going. “Well, I’ve got to rush back to be with the little ones, my son’s back in rehab and my daughter, who knows where she is.” I told her she sounded like one of the superhero grandparents in book I’m reading called Raising Grandkids. “I had no idea how many of you there were!” “Yes, there seems to be more of us. We are picking up after a lost generation”.
Gary Garrison, author of Raising Grandkids, is part of a cultural phenomenon new to most North Americans– grandparents raising babies, toddlers and teenagers. He is raising a grand-daughter when one normally retires or enters a retirement home. Not the natural course of events. But the number of young people who “can’t or won’t raise their own children due to addiction, poverty, poor health” and even death is rising and more and more grandparents are stepping in to raise traumatized grandchildren with problems of their own, including fetal infant alcohol syndrome.
Garrison takes us through the tangled web of bureaucracy that several grandparents, who should be golfing or vacationing, are battling in order to get financial help for their new young families. As a “skipped-generation parent” he introduces us to his support group, the Cangrans, a National Kinship Support group of “kincare” families who share their fears, confusion, information and humour about their sudden return to parenting. The group is a place to go and not be “talked down to” or be told “you are crazy for doing this,” or worse, be shamed as being bad parents initially.“I’m working on my Freedom 85 Plan”, jokes one woman. Another asks a newcomer: “Did they ask you if you could just watch them for the weekend? That’s how it always starts!”
Garrison writes about his involvement with TAG, a Traumatic Attachment Group that helps grandparents establish healthy bonds of trust and attachment with their new wards. The principle tool of the TAG program is ‘kit time’, a time when grandparent and child build a literal kit box full of ‘playtime’ items of the child’s choosing: paper, crayons, markers, glues sticks, a special bar of soap with a comforting scent, etc. The kit helps create new bonds built around senses and associations, rebuilding safe and healthy attachments, as well as new and healthy neural pathways.
It’s not only the child who has been traumatized by rupture. As Garrison says, “parents of a missing generation carry in their own hearts and brains the scars of damaged attachment” when their adult children reject their young offspring. And when they return and try to be the good parent to the grandchild, grandparents are wary, because any progress they have made often goes out the window if the mom or dad just shows up for the afternoon, then leaves for months on end.
Indigenous grandparents have a tradition of taking in their grandchildren. Besides experiencing child welfare as dysfunctional, the cultural and spiritual welfare of the child is nurtured by the wisdom of the elders in the extended family. Many grandparents did their best to keep the young out of the “60’s scoop”, a form of racism where residential schools were replaced by intervention by the welfare system, putting a disproportionate number of Indigenous children in foster care. Grandparents continue to intervene today and will continue to do so until racism is a thing of the past. (But, as Justice Sinclair is quoted as saying, racism isn’t truly over until “ordinary people can no longer comfortably make racist comments in the privacy of their homes.”)
Garrison ends the book with a valuable insight into human behaviour: of the millions of animal species, only two kinds of whales and humans evolve to grandmother. “They are the only species to experience menopause and go on to grandmother.” The grandmother hypothesis states that menopause is a response that “ensures the survival of the species.” He goes on to describe long-living grandmother humans and whales as strengtheners of social connections, contributing to “collective cognition” which refers to “the shared memory and wisdom of elders among the group. Killer whales survive not because they use the same Twitter feeds or follow the same news broadcasts, but because they live in integrated social groups and value female elders’ shared wisdom”. So, he emphasizes, “Grandmothers are not just nice old women who spoil grandchildren.” They are, as Bob McDonald of Quirks and Quarks proclaims: “mutant superheroes”.
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