Linda and Jackie Dowdy’s daughters left the nest years ago, but their home is far from empty.
Their 16- and 14-year old granddaughters McKynzie and McKayla keep their Mayfield home full of life, day in and day out. They call Linda “Granny” and Jackie “Pawpaw,” but they are their parents and have been since they were small.
“They’re our kids,” Linda said of ‘Kynzie and ‘Kayla. “Talk to anybody else that’s raised their grandkids for that long. They’re yours.”
“Grandfamilies” is the term for households like the Dowdys.
Nationally about 3 percent of children live in grandfamilies (families headed by grandparents or relatives), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage of Kentucky children living with their grandparents is double the national average. Kentucky, Delaware, Louisiana and West Virginia have the highest rate of children in grandfamilies at 6 percent.
In the Purchase, it is estimated that 1,988 grandparents are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, according to census data.
It’s a family of families that’s grown significantly in the last decade due in part to economic stresses, as well as improvements in the ways the U.S. Census captures family data.
Grandfamilies form for a variety of reasons: parents’ job loss, military deployment, divorce, death, domestic issues, substance abuse, incarceration and mental illness among them. When parents, for whatever reason, can no longer care for their children, grandparents, like Granny and Pawpaw Dowdy, take on a second round of parenting to keep their grandchildren out of foster care and in the family.
If the grandparents are willing and able, it’s typically what’s best for the children, and best for taxpayers, too. Generations United, a support organization, estimates that grandfamilies save taxpayers $4 billion a year by raising grandchildren and keeping them out of foster care.
The Dowdys: The decision was ‘simple’
Linda’s oldest daughter, McKynzie and McKayla’s mother, was “in a rough time” when McKynzie was born. Linda and Jackie, who were still raising two teenage girls of their own, watched McKynzie often when she was a baby, as grandparents often do. But their time with McKynzie became more frequent. For weeks at a time they’d keep McKynzie and care for her, not hearing or seeing much of their daughter, McKynzie’s mother.
The Dowdys didn’t know the exact details of their daughter’s struggles, but they were worried for McKynzie’s safety. Things escalated to the point where they enlisted the help of their family attorney and got temporary custody of McKynzie.
“What choice did I have?” Linda said. “After that it was just simple.”
McKynzie’s mother didn’t fight it. When McKynzie was 16 months old, her grandparents gained full custody of her. About two years later, the same happened with her sister, McKayla.
Linda and Jackie consider themselves lucky that they were in a position to take in their granddaughters. Jackie works at a plant in Calvert City and has for nearly 20 years. Linda is in her 38th year at the Andy Gardner Foundation in Mayfield.
Still, their three-bedroom, one-bath home had to grow to accommodate the couple, their children, and their grandchildren. Jackie jokes that with five girls and only one bathroom in the house, expanding was his only chance at survival. Now, their home has five bedrooms, two bathrooms and plenty of room for them all.
To others they may look like an odd family – white parents with two biracial (grand)daughters. They used to get looks and stares everywhere they went together when the girls were little, although it’s gotten better now, they said. At the time, Jackie just kept saying, “They had to be loved! We took ’em in, because they had to be loved. It doesn’t matter what color our skin or their skin is.”
The girls’ mother lives in Louisville now and seems to be doing better, staying out of trouble, the Dowdys say. They visit her a few times a year, but the girls’ home is with their grandparents and always will be.
“Years ago, if somebody started asking me about all this I would start crying, because my heart was broken,” Linda admits. “My heart was broken for my daughter. My heart was broken for us, that we were all put in this situation. But now, it’s a blessing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Hesters: Keeping family together
Only about 30 minutes away from the Dowdy grandfamily in Mayfield is a still-fresh grandfamily, the Hesters, in Almo.
Jean Hester has three grown children of her own, but five of her grandchildren live with her and her husband on the outskirts of Murray.
The Hesters’ story started out much like the Dowdys’. Jean would often watch her oldest daughter’s girls, Kiera and Trinity, as grandparents so often do. But it soon became clear to Jean that her granddaughters were not safe in her daughter and son-in-law’s home, for various reasons. Even though Jean’s husband had recently had a stroke, and money was tight, Jean adopted Kiera and Trinity, now 9 and 7 years old.
Despite the issues that led to Kiera and Trinity’s adoption, their mother went on to have three more children, Tyler, Isabella and Aiden, now 5, 3 and 2, respectively. Both Tyler and Isabella were removed from their mother’s care by the state, and Jean took them in. When her daughter had her fifth and final child, Aiden, Jean brought him home with her, straight from the hospital.
“I never, ever thought I’d be raising my grandkids, ever,” Jean said, sitting at her kitchen table in her briefly quiet house. Kiera and Trinity were at school, and their younger brothers and sister were down for a nap.
“I didn’t raise my kids like that,” she said. “But you know, life can take some strange turns.”
Jean’s husband is still suffering from complications from his stroke and can do little to help with the kids. It’s almost all up to Jean. With the help of the team at the Purchase Area Development District (PADD) Office, she gets whatever financial help she can through programs like Kentucky Caregiver Program and Kinship Care. The Calloway County Family Resource Center has been a blessing, too, she said, helping her get counseling for Kiera and Trinity.
Also, about a year ago she started going to the PADD Office’s Calloway County Grandparents Raising Grandkids support group. Just getting to talk to other grandparents like her has helped tremendously. It helps her not feel so alone, she said, and as much as she loves her grandbabies, she cherishes the chance to get out of the house and “talk to grownups.”
“There’s never any ‘me’ time,” Jean said. “I never have time alone. But that’s just the way it is when you’ve got little kids. And of course I had to really think about potty training. It was so much easier when I was 24 years old! Now I’m 48. I thought I’d be enjoying my grandkids: spoiling them and then sending them back home. But there’s a reason for everything. I couldn’t see them nowhere else. I’m not going to let anybody else mistreat them. They’ve been through enough.”
Jean hopes that one day her daughter will be in a better place, and better able to care for her children. Her daughter’s missing everything, Jean said – Isabella’s first steps; Aidan’s first steps; their first teeth; their first words. She missed it all, because she just wasn’t there.
The kids all call Jean “Nan Nan,” but she’s their mother. She said her heart breaks a little for her daughter when she hears the older girls telling other kids that their mom is like their sister. It’s hard for them all, Jean said, but much like the Dowdys and so many other grandparents in her second-parenthood shoes, she has no regrets.
“If I had to do it over again, I would,” Jean said. “I just don’t see my life without ’em. They’re what makes my life complete, my grandkids. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You love your grandkids. You just have to take it one day at a time. I just hope (my daughter) finally got herself together, because someday I won’t be here. And I just love these kids, too much I guess.”