Johann Schiller, an 18th century German poet and philosopher, said, “It is not flesh and blood, but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.”
Biology doesn’t necessarily a family make; in the case of millions of families across the world — many right here in Delta County — all it takes to make a family is love, commitment and a connection. These “kinship families” are the growing trend and may arguably be the new norm. Kinship families can be foster, adoptive, single parent, grandparent or other types of families.
One family that fits the new norm is the Tolka family of Delta.
Debbie Tolka’s living room is strewn with brightly colored Lego blocks, dolls and other toys. Her dining room table is covered with markers, construction paper and stacks of kids’ books. It’s a pretty typical set-up when there are two small children in the house, save for one thing. This is Tolka’s second time around doing the mom thing. She’s already raised one son, Chris. Now she’s helping Chris and his wife, Cheltse, raise their two children.
Tolka is one of many grandparents across the nation taking on a parental role. The 2000 U.S. Census reported that more than six million children are being raised by their grandparents, or one in every 12 children. In 2000, there were 2.5 million grandparent-headed households.
The 2006 census showed that in Colorado, more than 35,000 grandparents were raising at least one grandchild.
Reasons vary as to why an ever-increasing number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Everything from poverty and unemployment to incarceration, child abuse, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death or serious illness of a parent and parents in the military can turn a family’s routine upside down.
In Tolka’s case, the financial aspect definitely came into play. Chris and Cheltse, who lived in Delta and who both worked minimum wage jobs, couldn’t afford day care. Their only option was Grandma Debbie, who lived in Crawford. With three different work schedules and 40 miles between their two homes, more often than not, Heli was with Debbie. Tolka, who is 50 years old and at that point in life where one begins to think about retirement and relaxing a bit, now found herself with another newborn in the house. That meant 2 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, a crying baby and all the joys that go with parenthood— and the joys of being a grandma in this case.
When Chris and Cheltse found out they were expecting again, Debbie knew that at some point, the five of them were going to have to live together. So this past summer, she bought a home in Delta. Chris and Cheltse live in the basement apartment and Debbie lives upstairs. Heli and Aaron, now 1, have a bedroom downstairs and a bedroom upstairs.
“The kids like seeing all three of us every day,” Debbie said. “That’s why I did this.”
Heli stays upstairs with grandma on school nights, and in the morning, Debbie takes her to preschool. Mom and Dad watch Aaron, but they have to stagger their work schedules with Debbie’s so that there is always someone available to be with him. There are times when work schedules don’t always work out, so Heli and Aaron spend an hour or two at someone’s workplace.
“It really does take a village to raise a child,” Debbie said. She, Chris and Cheltse make group decisions about what’s best for Heli and Aaron. Every decision, from disciplinary tactics to what preschool Heli was going to attend to what type of formula to feed Aaron, are agreed on by all three.
“I never thought I’d be changing diapers as often as I do now, but it’s like, ‘Oh, well,’ ” Debbie said, laughing. “But I’m lucky that my kids respect my knowledge enough to ask for my help.
“I’d like to be the grandma who just gets to see them every day and spoil them. There are days I miss having a whole evening to myself. And there are some days I tell them [Chris and Cheltse] to just take the kids and leave for a while.”
Being a grandma who does more than spoil has put a bit of a hold on Debbie’s life. Among other things, she wants to attend some of the community education classes available at the Delta Montrose Technical College. She had planned on attending this fall, but with her crazy schedule, the classes have been put on hold. “I envision that at some point in the future I’ll go,” she said. “Things get easier as the kids get older.”
She added that being a grandma with a house full of kids is similar in another aspect— the worries about the ways her grandkids are growing up. “I have the same worries I had raising Chris. If they want to go to college, how are we going to pay for that? But I also worry about my own personal stuff, like retirement.”
But, she added, she absolutely would take the full house and the worries over never seeing her grandchildren, as is the case with both Chris’s and Cheltse’s fathers. “I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t see them every day,” she said. “My biggest joy is having them around. It’s fun. I get to see every little milestone in their lives. I get to see every tooth come in.”
Ben and Elizabeth Smith*, another local family, share Debbie’s sentiments. They, too, are raising a child not their own. Samantha, now three and a half, has lived with them on and off since she was born. A co-worker Elizabeth barely knew asked her to baby-sit one day for week-old Samantha. Elizabeth agreed, and now, “Three years later, here we are.”
“We fell in love with her,” Ben said. “Every time they asked us to baby-sit, we’d do it.”
Ben and Elizabeth had been told by doctors that they were unable to have kids. “It was great to get her,” Elizabeth said. “I loved it.”
Ben agreed. “She was an absolute angel,” he said.
Samantha’s birth parents began asking the Smiths to baby-sit more and more often, so much so that the baby soon had her own room, clothes and toys at the Smith house. She’s now with them about 50 percent of the time. She’s with them every weekend and several nights a week. Samantha calls Elizabeth “Mama” and Ben “Daddy Ben.”
Samantha’s parents had their own troubles, which is how she ended up spending more time with the Smiths. Her parents were, at that point in her life, in and out of jail and had some substance abuse problems. “We were the most reliable thing in their lives at that point,” Elizabeth said.
Her birth parents are doing much better with their own lives now, the Smiths say, and on one hand that’s great, because they see their daughter more often. But when she’s away from the Smiths, worries abound. “It’s like she’s our own daughter,” Ben said, “and we just don’t know where she is for several nights of the week.”
“We are all hoping and keeping our fingers crossed,” he said of Samantha’s parents’ continued efforts to get their lives back on track.
But, he added, he hopes they never take Samantha back for good. She’s ingrained in their lives wholeheartedly. Their parents have another granddaughter in Samantha, and she’s become a part of every aspect of their lives.
When Elizabeth and Ben found out they were having a baby, Samantha knew she was getting a new sibling. And now, she plays with her six-month-old “brother” just like any other big sister. She dresses in a sparkling, light-up princess dress, the one she wore for Halloween and loves to show off, and plays with her new baby brother by shaking a rattle at him and making him grin. Here at the Smith house she’s not “Samantha who visits,” she is “Samantha our child.”
“It’s like Seth is our second baby,” Elizabeth said— she’s already a seasoned mom.
Ben and Elizabeth have offered to take Samantha on a full-time, more permanent basis, but her birth parents have refused. The Smiths never tried going through legal channels to get full custody of her, because they are afraid if they did, they’d never see her again.
“I think they love her,” Ben said of Samantha’s parents. “And they’re really trying. They just get distracted by things.”
The Smiths offer their help to Samantha’s parents in more ways, such as suggesting when she needs to go to the doctor or dentist.
“She’s doing well, all things considered,” Ben said, though he’s worried that their situation, which is okay for now, might not be so in the future. “When she gets older, it’s going to be tough. Kids need stability.”
For families who may be in this situation, facts, statistics and resources can be found on a state-by-state basis at the Generations United website at www.gu.org/grandfamilies.
*Ben and Elizabeth Smith asked that their real names be withheld, due to the sensitive nature of family relationships.