One day when Andrew was 4 years old, he crawled onto my lap, looked at me very seriously, and asked, "Can I get inside you so I can be born from you?" My heart tugged as I told my little guy no, that's not how it works. You see, Andrew was "born from" my daughter Heather, but he has been living with me since he was 2 months old, and I guess he wanted to think of me as his mom.
Andrew is 7 now, and I'm raising him and 4-year-old Alexis, Heather's second child (by a different man). These kids are the light of my life, but when you're 56 years old, raising children isn't always easy. I think my daughter would like to take care of them eventually, but right now she has a lot of issues and can barely take care of herself. The children are here because there's no way I'd ever let them go into that awful world of foster care.
When all this began, I'd already brought up five children of my own. I got divorced when my kids were little, and I pretty much raised them as a single mom. I worked hard, sometimes holding two jobs to pay for their clothes and toys and our house in Mastic Beach, New York. By 1995, my kids were all grown and, for the most part, on their own. I was just beginning to dream about retiring and doing things like traveling and spending more time with my friends.
But then, much to my dismay, Heather, who was 19 and still in high school, got pregnant and told me she was going to keep the baby. I was furious—I knew that a child is a huge responsibility. I also knew that the father wasn't going to be involved. I was worried Heather wouldn't be able to handle the pressures of motherhood, and I told her not to do anything stupid if things ever got to the point when she didn't think she could take care of this child—that she should just bring him to me, and I would help out.
Sure enough, a couple of months later, Heather, who'd been living with one of my other daughters, came to me and said, "Ma, remember when you said you would help me with the baby? Well, I think I need to take you up on that offer." I discussed it with Jim, my live-in boyfriend, and after careful consideration, we said, "Sure, we can take care of Andrew for a while."
At first, I thought it would only be a couple of months. So I went to my supervisor—I work as a certified nurse's aide in a Suffolk County nursing home—and asked if I could temporarily work nights. That way, Jim could be home with Andrew during the night and I could take care of him during the day.
But a few weeks later, when Heather called and told me she was moving to Florida, I realized being Andrew's primary caregiver and guardian wouldn't be a short-term proposition. It was a total shock, but what could I do? After all, this was my grandchild and I loved him dearly. Heather moved back to New York less than a year later, but she still wasn't ready to take care of Andrew. By then, I was so attached to him that I didn't really mind. Alexis came to live with us two years ago. She'd been living with Heather for a while, then with her father and his new wife. But there were some issues there too, and we all decided she'd be better off with me.
My days are hectic, just like when my kids were young. But I'm a lot more exhausted than I was back then. Luckily, we've gotten things down to a pretty good routine: At night, I lay out the children's clothing for the next morning and make sure Andrew has his backpack ready to go. I head out to work at about 11 p.m. At 5:30 in the morning, Jim wakes the kids, feeds and dresses them, then drops them off at school and daycare. Then he goes to his job as a school maintenance worker.
I usually arrive home at about 8 a.m. to a quiet and empty house and try to sleep. If I'm lucky, I'll stay in bed until noon, but some days, especially when it's warm outside and the lawn mowers are going and the neighbors are playing music, I only get an hour or two of sleep.
Once I'm up, I tackle the housework. And there's plenty of it—the huge piles of laundry, the constant straightening and cleaning up. I pick the kids up at about 4 p.m. and then start dinner while they watch cartoons. After we eat, I clean the kitchen, help the kids do their homework, get them ready for bed—and then start all over again, day in and day out.
In many ways, my life is just like that of a typical 30-year-old mother. But the logistics of raising kids are much more complicated when you're the grandma, not the mom. When Andrew first came to live with us, he had some health problems. (His tonsils were so swollen he could barely swallow.) But because I wasn't his parent, I had to apply for formal custody just to get permission to treat his illnesses. Now I'm his legal guardian, so things are a bit easier.
Andrew's father is out of the picture, but Alexis's dad—and her other grandmother—have court-ordered visitation rights, and we have to arrange our schedules around those. That means staying pretty close to home. My son Ronnie, who's a successful photographer in New York City, recently asked me, "Mom, when are you going to see my new apartment?" and I said, "Ronnie, when can I?" Sometimes I feel as if my own life is shrinking, as if everyone else's needs are more important than mine.
But if it's tough for me, the situation is even harder on Andrew and Alexis. Heather, who lives about an hour away, comes to visit every week or so, and she reads to them and plays with them when she's here. But the problems are not all solved. Once, Andrew showed Jim a "picture" he drew of his mother—a page with nothing on it. At the bottom, he wrote, "You were supposed to come to our house and you didn't. Why didn't you come?" Alexis told him, "Don't worry, she always does that. She'll come next time." It's very sad for them, and if they need counseling down the road, I'll make sure that they get it.
Attitudes about kids are very different today than they were when my children were young. Back then, there was more focus on discipline. Nowadays, you're not supposed to spank; you're just supposed to talk to kids or give them time-outs when they misbehave. I have mixed feelings about this New Age stuff because I see a lot of rotten kids out there. So while I don't spank Alexis and Andrew, I'm still strict. If they're fresh, I send them to their rooms or won't let them watch television. I want them to learn to mind their manners and treat people with respect.
There's no way I could manage all this without Jim. He's doing a great job helping me raise these children right. He's definitely a father figure. Andrew can cast a fishing rod quite a distance for a boy his age, and that's something that Jim—Andrew calls him Poppy—taught him.
The rest of my family pitches in, offering time and some money. We're not struggling, but it helps when my older children buy the kids toys or clothing. My daughter Anita comes over to babysit a lot; my son Ronnie will take them to the zoo or a museum whenever he has time.
I realize that my life is a lot different from that of most women my age. I probably don't go to as many restaurants as my friends do, or see as many movies, or take as many vacations. But in a way, being with children is keeping me young. I don't have time to sit around and get cranky and bored. There's always something to do with Andrew and Alexis. They want to play ball or ride their bikes or go to a fast-food restaurant. And I enjoy doing things with them. Now my dreams revolve around retiring not so I can take a trip, but so I can spend time with these children, go on field trips with them, maybe get more involved in their schools.
In many ways, getting a second chance to have children in your life is a true blessing. When you're raising your own kids, I don't think you appreciate them enough. They're exhausting, and they can get under your skin. But when you're a grandmother, you realize that children are precious for such a short time. You know that it's important to enjoy and cherish them because it's over before you know it.