Edmonton writer Gary Garrison never expected to be called into parenting—again—in his retirement 60s. But having committed to co-parenting his partner’s young grandchildren, he reached out to other grandparents raising grandkids—families that Statistics Canada terms “skip-generation” households. These family stories, many of which are told in Raising Grandkids, track dishearteningly repetitive spirals of trauma and crisis, where grandparents are called into action by ruptures in their children’s and grandkids’ lives.
Children with broken attachments are deeply traumatized and often struggle with conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome. The stories are heavy: A grandmother struggles at the breaking point from the incessant, brain-piercing screaming of her troubled 9-year-old grandson; another grandmother raises 14 grandkids. Throughout the book, Garrison’s respect for the sacrifice and stamina of skip-generation caregivers is unfailing: “We raise these grandkids because they’re ours.… Despite the anxiety, fear, shame, guilt, loss of freedom, and frustrated dreams of retirement, we still love them.”
The shared experience of raising grandkids allows Garrison trusted access to other grandparents—urban and rural, First Nations—and he takes this trust seriously. Unless individuals insist otherwise, Garrison changes names and fashions composite characters. He recognizes caregivers’ fears: Losing government support, having children apprehended, exacerbating alienation from their own sons and daughters. He has maintained his boomer generation’s youthful suspicion of institutions, and levels damning criticism at the child welfare system in Alberta, which he characterizes as bureaucratic and heartless: “The child welfare system employs people who want to help but is designed more to avoid public scandal at minimal cost than to do what is best for the child and her family.”
Garrison sometimes generalizes from a white middle-class perspective, as when he nostalgically characterizes all baby boomer children as having glowing, indulgent relationships with their grandparents: “For us [kids of the ’50s and ’60s], a visit to grandma and grandpa was a treat if they lived nearby and a vacation trip to paradise if they didn’t.” But on balance, Garrison takes his vocation as a storyteller seriously, and the empathy he brings to telling the life stories entrusted to him raises awareness of the personal, social and systemic challenges faced by these families. “My hope,” he concludes, “is that everyone who reads this book will understand how skip-generation grandparents contribute to the health and future of our world, and that they’ll do at least one thing to collaborate with these superheroes.”
—Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.