When I was 26, I left the big city and moved back to my parents’ farm with my infant daughter Ella. It felt humbling to return to my childhood home, but I never regretted the nearly six years that my eldest child and I lived with my folks.
When we moved in with them, I quickly realized what a blessing my baby and I were experiencing. I understood the scope of the grace even more on the deathbed of my mom in 2011 and later my dad in 2014. Watching Mom and Dad love and nurture Ella helped me to see them in a new light. It healed fault lines in my relationship with them, and it gave me a new respect and appreciation for them.
Ella considers the years that she lived with her grandparents to be one of the best things to happen to her. Living in her grandparents’ home allowed her to have a close relationship with them as well as stability.
“One of the downsides of being the child of a single parent is the absence of a two-parent family, but I felt that less keenly because of my grandparents,” Ella explained. “In many ways, I felt like they were more my parents than my grandparents. I spent the first six years of my life feeling loved by them and my mom, and that feeling followed me after my mom and I moved into our own house.”
Ella’s life with her grandparents had a positive effect on her, offering her opportunities that many of her peers never experienced, and she remembers her childhood as idyllic.
“I helped my grandparents plant in the spring, pick corn in the summer, dig potatoes, and make homemade apple juice in the fall. I learned to play piano from my grandma at 3 years old, and I sat by her while she played the organ at church,” Ella recalled. “Along with skills like making pie and kolache [Czech pastry], I gathered my grandma’s stories of her childhood, and I observed her profound faith. My grandparents created a stable home for me that modeled the Christian life even amid their flaws.”
Ella wants grandparents who are asked to help raise a grandchild to know that God is giving them a gift. They get a second chance to do the things they wished they’d done better with their children. “Your influence can make such a difference,” she said.
She added, “I know that my grandparents were their best selves with me, and I am sure that I would not be the person I am without them. I remember my grandma every time I say my Rosary, and I remember my grandfather — who attended Mass and knelt at consecration until the end of his battle with cancer — every time I kneel in a church. If your child wants to move home with their baby, you have a profound opportunity to love and guide a child whose life has started at a disadvantage.”
Like Ella’s grandparents, Lori and Rodney Lemke of Nampa, Idaho, welcomed a grandchild into their home. When their son Nick, 18, came to them and confessed that his girlfriend was pregnant, they were shocked. Their distress turned to excitement as they anticipated the joy of having Nick’s baby live in their home.
JOY BEYOND EXPECTATION
When their grandbaby, Nathan, arrived on Jan. 1, 2014, he changed Lori and Rodney’s lives in ways they never expected. Lori told Catholic Digest, “You feel wonderful when you bring home a child, but that feeling is even greater with a grandchild. You don’t have all the responsibility, but this precious little child is in your life bringing so much joy!”
The Lemkes cherished seeing Nathan develop and learn. “Seeing all those first things happen — not as a nervous mom but as a grandma — felt awesome,” she shared. “Also, I got to see my son become a good dad, and it made me so proud of him considering how young he was and how fast it all happened.”
Although they were thrilled to have Nathan live with them, there were some challenges. Nathan alternately lived with his mother and other grandparents, and sharing him wasn’t easy for the Lemkes. Every time Nathan was gone, the Lemkes missed him terribly.
But at times it was trying when Nathan was with the Lemkes because he would tire them out. “It was especially hard on Rodney because he’d want to go to bed, but there was this little person running around,” Lori said.
Adding to the Lemkes’ stress, when Nathan was 18 months old, Nick moved out of his parents’ home. It was an emotional adjustment for Lori and Rodney to only see their grandson three or four times a week every other week.
BETTER PARENTS AND LESS JUDGMENTAL
The Lemkes believe that helping to raise their grandson has made them better parents. The second time around doing child-rearing, they learned to be more patient.
“We have more understanding of the stages and things that children go through,” Lori said. “We don’t get so upset or take it personally when [Nathan] does something wrong.”
Lori also shared that having Nathan in their lives has made her stronger in her faith and more forgiving of other people’s failings.
“You think that your family is supposed to be so perfect because you’ve raised your kids in the faith, and then all this stuff happens. You start to question, ‘Where did I go wrong?’ But then you realize that this baby is a gift,” she said. “You empathize more with people who’ve gone through the same thing, and you realize that it’s important not to be so hard on other people — to be helpful rather than judging.”
WHEN I GROW UP I’LL CALL YOU ‘MAMA’
The Lemkes attend St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Nampa, Idaho. There is a tangible bond that Nathan has with his grandma.
Lori agreed. “Even though I’m grandma, in some ways I’m like a mom to Nathan. Today he said, ‘When I’m older, I’m going to call you ‘Mama,’” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t imagine I could love someone so much and want to be with him all the time.”
Brian and Dana Ray’s son had struggled with mental health throughout his life. In college, he began self-medicating with alcohol and isolating himself from his friends and family. He fathered a baby girl, Melanie, with a young woman who also had addiction problems. Around the time that Melanie was 18 months old, the Rays of Troy, Missouri, felt concerned for her safety.
Brian Ray told Catholic Digest, “I looked at myself and asked, ‘What is love?’ Every example of love that we have is from God: God giving himself to us; giving us life; giving us his son who gave his life. Then I asked, ‘Do I love this child?’ The answer was ‘Yes, I love my granddaughter.’”
Putting aside any worries they had about money and time, the Rays decided to do what was best for Melanie.
SHE BROUGHT US HAPPINESS
When Melanie was 18 months old, she began living with the Rays full-time, and when she turned 2, they received legal guardianship. Parenting a grandchild hadn’t been on their radar, but they said she has brought new life and happiness into their home.
“She’s become like one of our own kids, and she makes us remember what it was like when our three kids were little,” Dana said. “And our youngest daughter, Kennedy, gets a chance to be a big sister.”
They’ve seen Melanie blossom in their home, turning from being frightened and timid into a healthy child.
Melanie has found a place where she feels as though she belongs.
“Melanie calls our house her home,” Dana explained. “It took her a while to say, ‘This is my home.’ And sometimes still, she asks me, ‘This is my house. Right, Nana?’ And I’m like, ‘Yep. This is your house, Melanie.’”
TWO GENERATIONS OF GRANDPARENTS PARENTING
The Rays weren’t the first grandparents in their family to parent. Dana’s parents welcomed three grandchildren into their home because one of her siblings was unable to care for the children.
“My parents became their mom and dad, and I feel like that’s how it’s going to turn out with Melanie. We are honest with her and let her know that we’re not her parents, but every once in a while she wants to pretend. She’ll say, ‘Can I call you Mom?’”
“I cannot help but smile and answer, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’