EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this article for Generations United‘s Together Blog. It appears here with the organization’s permission.
Barbara Wells knows a thing or two about adversity – how it can either break you or tap unexpected strengths.
As someone who succeeds at challenges, the biggest one came for the single grandmother in 2006, when her grandson, Jay’son, moved in with her after his parents’ incarceration.
Until that moment, Wells, whose grown daughters had their own children, enjoyed her life in Newport News, VA., where she lived for 17 years and worked as a crane operator at a shipyard.
The freedom to travel allowed her to take off for New Haven, CT., after her mom’s heart attack in 1992.
And, while boarding a bus back to Newport News, Wells’s right foot went through a snow-covered pothole before she lost her grip and and her left foot slipped on the ice.
She broke her right leg in five places.
When doctors told her she would never work a crane again, she decided to stay in New Haven and go back to school.
Her life before Jay’son looked like this: finish school, move back to Newport News and work as a social worker.
Nowhere in those plans included a second parenthood raising a grandchild. “Since I had to get him, I said, ‘I’m going to raise him now. I’m not going to let him go into the system,’” she recalled. “‘I’m going to put my life on hold for right now.”
That was eight years ago. “Now,” the grandmother said, “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Wells is among 2.7 million older Americans raising one or more grandchildren under age 18, according to 2012 census data. “Of these caregivers,” data reports, “1.7 million were grandmothers and 1.0 million were grandfathers.”
This grandfamily’s new light includes Jay’son, 14, starting high school at New Haven’s Metropolitan Business Academy. “I’m very proud of him,” Wells said. “Most children who are not living with their parents have some type of behavioral problems.”
But through therapy, she said, “he’s doing such a remarkable job.”
And so is Wells, who recently graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with her Masters in Social Work.
The grandmother, who’s a case manager in Yale University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, is even thinking of relocating with her grandson to Maryland, North Carolina or Florida for full-time work and a fresh start.
Jay’son’s got his eyes set on Virginia, which piqued his interest during a recent trip to Newport News. When asked how he felt about moving, he told her, “I will just have to meet new friends.”
While their days are brighter, Wells recalls those dark times that nearly broke them. “When he was younger, it was a little tough,” the grandmother said.
She recalled 6-year-old Jay’son often worrying about his future. “Grandma, how am I going to be able to take care of myself?” he asked her. “I’m afraid.”
The anger came when he got older. “He didn’t want to go to school,” the grandmother said.
Just when she and Jay’son thought they reached their breaking point, they tapped unexpected strengths.
Wells found hers in New Haven’s services for grandparents raising grandchildren, her friends and family, and even her grandson.
Through the Consultation Center of New Haven’s Elder Programs, the grandmother’s resources included support groups, parenting skills training, respite opportunities and legislative advocacy through the Center’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program.
The Kinship Fund, which the Connecticut Children’s Trust Fund runs, helped Wells make the financial adjustments to care for Jay’son.
When the social worker, an undergrad student at the time, had to make her 7 a.m. classes, her family and friends – especially Jay’son’s paternal grandparents – took care of him.
“Grandpa Johnnie was close to the only positive male role model in his life,” she said, crediting Grandpa Johnnie and his wife for helping her reach her goals.
“It is alright to co-grandparent,” said Wells, adding that she and Jay’son’s other grandparents call each other “grandparents-in-law.” “They have been right there by my side.”
When school nearly broke her, Jay’son was another unexpected strength. “He’s a very intelligent young man despite his diagnosis of ADHD,” Wells said, remembering an undergrad video project her class partner sat on until the last minute.
When Wells’s classmate lost their recording on her way home, “Jay’son and I were up at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she recalled. “He recorded the video and made sure I had it ready for class the next day.”
During grad school, he helped Wells with her PowerPoint presentations.
As for Jay’son’s unexpected strength, it came from his grandmother.
During those undergrad days, when Wells couldn’t find a sitter, she took her grandson to school with her. Watching his grandmother study hard inspired Jay’son to take his education seriously.
“It’s nice to show children what college is about,” she said.
Now, he won’t stop talking about it. “He understands that you can pick your classes on the days you want, if they’re available,” the social worker said. “He loved it.”
Wells’s classmates also loved having him around.
Now, it’s hard for the social worker to imagine her days without Jay’son, even as she recalls how her life changed that night in 2006.
“When I first got Jay’son,” Wells recalled, “I had to seek services for him.”
A stranger at a center surprised Wells with her reaction. “Are you going to take your grandkid?” the woman said. “Oh, I would never do that.”
Despite those concerns, Wells has no regrets. “It was tough,” she said, “but the joy I get out of watching him grow into a nice, respectable young man was worth it.”