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The redefining of family we're missing


Joy Family

Jim and Maggie Joy, members of First Baptist Church in Ty Ty, stand with their great-granddaughters, left to right, Abby, Elizabeth, and Sarah. At right is Sarah's half-sister Julie, who isn't a great-grandchild of the Joys.

Recently, members of First Baptist Church in Ty Ty were meeting the new student minister. During a question-and-answer session, Jim Joy had only one question for the candidate: “Do you babysit?”

It was meant as a tongue-in-cheek query, though maybe with a grain of earnestness. Jim, 70, and his wife Maggie, 67, pretty much raised their two granddaughters and now care for three great granddaughters – ages 7, 5, and 3 – around 90% of the time, he estimates.

The reimagining of the traditional family has been well-documented. At its core is a picture of an ideal – dad, mom, children. From there the image changes and begins to become something different.

... in 2009 approximately 102,000 grandparents in [Georgia] were responsible for raising their grandchildren.

As more of those pictures of family appear, they coalesce into becoming a new reality much more common than we think. That reality becomes more apparent as individuals realize they have a friend, cousin, or co-worker a part of this growing new definition of family. This makes the existence of these families impossible to ignore, given that we share a pew or even a last name with them.

Such commentary isn’t unusual to hear today, but it’s typically regarding another redefinition of family. When one topic grabs the majority of headlines, though, another goes unnoticed even if it’s the one more people experience personally.


The growth of ‘grandfamilies’

In 1970 a campaign began to honor all grandparents. Not until eight years later would it be fulfilled, but at that time President Jimmy Carter signed a federal proclamation that the first Sunday after Labor Day would be National Grandparents Day.

Four decades later the day has come to recognize more of what grandparents are called on to do. In 1970, 3% of children lived with their grandparents. By 2009 that figure had risen to 9%, and in 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau stated 10% of children in the country lived with a grandparent. The development has given rise to the term “grandfamily.”

"We pray with them before every meal and typically have to go through three blessings, since they all want to pray."

Jim Joy, member
First Baptist Church, Ty Ty

According to the Georgia Department of Human Services, in 2009 approximately 102,000 grandparents in the state were responsible for raising their grandchildren. The growth of such cases necessitated the Department of Family and Children’s Services to offer a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) support payment of $50 per child per month. Other subsidies exist, such as summer job placement for 16-21-year-olds and one-time payments for crisis intervention.

That same year, the AARP reported 5.8 million children living in homes where grandparents were the householders and another two million children in homes with other relatives heading the household. The indication is although a parent may have lived in those homes as well, at least some responsibility for childcare went to those grandparents or relatives.

The roads taken to get here are numerous – addiction, joblessness, broken families. Personal sin of some form is almost always part of it. For those grandparents raising their grandchildren, though, the hope is such roads aren’t travelled again.


Family pride

The Joys moved to Ty Ty in 1978 from Jacksonville, FL. Maggie’s parents were in bad health and the couple wanted to be nearby. Maggie was a registered nurse who ended up being a manager at Tift Regional Medical Center. Jim worked in sales until becoming a policeman in his mid-40s and EMT. He later was employed by a company selling home hospital equipment, retiring just last year.

... in 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau stated 10% of children in the country lived with a grandparent.

They had two sons, one of whom would marry still a teenager and soon have two daughters before going through a painful divorce.

“We pretty much raised our granddaughters,” says Jim. “We were younger then and it didn’t seem to be as hard.”

As unique as their situation is, the Joys are hesitant to call attention to themselves. “Our boys are very good and have never been in trouble with drugs or the law. Our granddaughters were both baptized and accepted Jesus at our church.”

The fact is, they’re proud of their sons. Proud that after a hard divorce, one of their boys took a construction job to support his girls but it required him to be out of town much of the time. “That was good for him,” remembers Jim. “It was a hard time and it was better for him to be out of Tifton.”

The growing roles of grandparents

1970 – campaign begins to establish a day to honor grandparents

1978 – Grandparents Day established by President Jimmy Carter for the first Sunday after Labor Day, which was Sept. 7 this year.

Sept, 9, 1979 – first Grandparents Day

From 2010 U.S. Census Bureau

7 million – number of grandparents whose grandchildren younger than 18 live with them

2.7 million – number of grandparents responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchildren under 18

    1.7 million – grandmothers

    1 million – grandfathers

580,000 – grandparents responsible for grandchildren under 18 whose income is below the poverty level.

$45,000 – median income for families with grandparent householders

$33,000 – median income in grandfamilies where a parent of the grandchildren was not present

Their son’s personal recovery probably doesn’t happen, though, if the Joys don’t step forward to help care for his daughters.

Those granddaughters grew up and had children of their own (the Joys have five great-grandchildren total). Again, divorce brought about a situation for one of the granddaughters, leaving her with three children and a high school education. To care for her girls, she needed to go back to school while working the night shift at a Japanese steakhouse. Jim and Maggie volunteered to help. They continue to help as their granddaughter no longer works at the restaurant but is now going to school at night.


What is left

As one would expect, there’s a bit of personal cost as freedom typically associated to a couple in their 70s becomes limited. “A lot of times on Sunday night friends our age will go out and eat and it’s difficult to have small children there,” Jim admits. “We’d like to go more into Atlanta to IKEA, the DeKalb Farmer’s Market, or just junkin’ at Scott’s Antique Market close to the airport.”

As the Joys see it, though, the time spent with their great-granddaughters is also an opportunity.

“We pray with them before every meal and typically have to go through three blessings, since they all want to pray,” says Jim. “They pray over their food at school, too. At bedtime we pray again with them before they say their own private prayers. We make sure they’re involved at church in choir, GAs, Mission Friends, and Sunday School.”

Yes, their personal health and energy level remain a factor – in 2012 Jim had three heart attacks and had to be put on a ventilator – but the effort hasn’t diminished. Maggie has lunch with the girls at school often. Jim isn’t above helping match a little girl’s shoes with her Sunday dress.

“When we’re dead and gone the only monument we’ll have is our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren,” said Jim. “They’re our legacy.”