We lived in a big brown two story home far out on Eastern Long Island, two hours outside of New York City. From time to time, as I got older, strangers would comment, “Oh, you look just like your dad,” or “Wow, your mom is beautiful.” What these strangers did not know, and I felt too ashamed to tell them, was that these two people they thought were my parents were in fact my maternal grandparents. I was raised by my mom’s parents; my actual parents were too absent, too young, too absorbed in the life they knew before finding out they were having a baby to care for me.
I became my grandparents’ child in so many ways; up until the day they moved me into my first apartment my junior year of college and out on my own, they were responsible for me. Like millions of other kids in the United States, I was raised entirely by my grandparents. Families break apart for so many reasons, from incarceration to addiction to neglect, leaving the lives of kids in the balance. Some kids are put into the foster care system while others go to family members through kinship guardianship or adoption, like what happened in my own family to my siblings and I.
My grandparents were exactly the parents I needed. They were the ones who financially provided for me and instilled values in me that I will forever be grateful for. Though I didn’t know it as a young child, they also struggled to keep a roof over my head. We moved for job opportunities and change. I suspect they also ran from my mother’s increasingly erratic behavior as her addiction to crack cocaine took hold; we started over, in a new place and in a new house.
We could have used a place like the communities of Bridge Meadows.
What is Bridge Meadows, you ask? It’s a group of housing developments making a difference in the lives of children and their caregivers, helping multigenerational families that look like the one I grew up in. Its communities, currently located in Portland and Beaverton, Oregon, with more on the way, are made up of families who need a helping hand.
The work of Bridge Meadows, as it states on their website, “develops and sustains intentional, intergenerational communities for youth formerly in foster care, adoptive families, and elders, building place, permanence, and shared social purpose one community at a time.” When I read this, it made me sad but hopeful. Not only is Bridge Meadows a place where caregivers can live and raise their kids, but it’s a place where kids (and families) can heal from the trauma of being in foster care.
I speak from experience when I say that even though my grandparents were all things a child could need: loving, attentive, emotionally available and so much more, I still faced trauma. Why? Because my parents were never physically or emotionally around, and when they were, I had to manage them, and their emotions and lives. Trauma is something that so many families face, even the ones that seem to “have it all.” The Bridge Meadows communities provide healing, support, and kinship for families. And what family couldn’t benefit from that?
In 2010, research showed that 1 in 14 kids were being raised by their grandparents or 5.4 million kids, up from 4.7 million in 2005. In the same study, researchers noted, “In 2010, more than half of children (54 percent) who were living with grandparents were being raised mainly by a grandparent who reported having primary responsibility for most of the child’s basic needs. The numbers of children with grandparents as their main care providers grew from 2.5 million in 2005 to 2.9 million in 2010, a 16 percent increase over the decade.” These numbers remind me that the need is great.
Families, especially those that are multigenerational, are in need of things that our society just doesn’t seem able to handle. Such as adequate rehabilitation for those with substance abuse issues, like my parents. Or adequate housing and earning potential for those who carry the added challenge of raising kids. And educational opportunities for children and caregivers alike.
Bridge Meadows is filling a gap that so many can benefit from. Our society is lacking in so many ways to help older people — nontraditional families — to wholly provide for kids in the way they’d like to, and it’s only getting more difficult; according to CNN, “Social Security will have to cut benefits by 2034 if Congress does nothing to address the program’s long-term funding shortfall.”
Communities like these epitomize what it means to say “it takes a village” to raise a kid. This village, I am sure, is providing more than a housing community for these families — it’s giving them hope, which does not come easily for kids (or caregivers) who find themselves living with such nontraditional family dynamics.
In my own life, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that truly, the only community one can depend on is the one we create. Not only was I raised by my grandparents, but today, I am raising my half-brother as my own son. The little boy that was discharged into my care almost fifteen years ago has taught me what it means to be a parent, a mother, and a caregiver. As his mom, I’ve learned from him how vital a supportive community is for his wellbeing … and my sanity. It is not an easy job.
Being a parent is very hard, and maybe more so in a nontraditional household. But communities like Bridge Meadows provide a much-needed support system for these families, and as the product of a multigenerational family myself, this is a model that I would love to see across the country.
We owe it to the grandparents who have stepped up to do the job their own children could not.