When Grandmothers Are Mothers, Too

This Sunday, bouquets of roses, Hallmark cards, and restaurant reservations will be deployed by citizenry anxious to promote and valorize an ideal Mother.  But what if you are a “mother” operating outside of the normative, mainstream designation? Is there a prize for you, too?

We could ask the thousands of grandmothers doing double duty as mothers while their daughters (or sons) serve time in prison. Jessica Dixon Weaver, a lawyer and legal scholar at Southern Methodist University, has spent considerable time exploring this version of mother, particularly in African American communities shaped by mass incarceration over the last 30 years.

Weaver, writing in her article African-American Grandmothers: Does Gender-Entrapment Theory Apply? argues that these vulnerable women are caught in a paradoxical trap for which they need support. They are often the strongest, most financially stable person in the family, viewed by themselves and others as matriarchs. They have deep loyalty to family and a hard-earned distrust of the State trying to act in loco parentis with their grandkids.  At the same time, they (and their families) have ignored the physical and emotional toll that raising several generations takes on the body and mind. Research shows that African-American custodial grandmothers are often single, living on limited income, and suffer disproportionately from serious illnesses such as hypertension and heart problems.”

African American grandmothers certainly are not alone in mothering their incarcerated children’s children.  The Sentencing Project estimates that as of 2011, state prisons throughout the U.S. held at least 56,500 mothers.  Texas had the highest number (7,533) and Vermont the lowest (60).  Children living in custodial grandparent families are generally considered at-risk, even more so when a parent’s absence is due to imprisonment. Often, the children “have experienced violence, abuse, and neglect” and “are susceptible to physical, behavioral, and mental health problems that compromise their growth and development,” according to 2012 research by Lenora Campbell et al. In other words, ailing grandparents and traumatized youth are making the best out of what they have, which sometimes is just each other.

Perhaps this Sunday we can expand our ideals to include these rejiggered families and the grand/mothers that make them possible. 

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