LaShawnDa Pittman’s book begins with a table of women’s names — 74, to be exact — listing their first name, age, marital or dating status, and the number of children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren they have.
The common denominators among the women are that they are Black grandmothers who are raising any number of their children’s offspring, creating what is known as skipped generation households, those consisting of only grandparents and grandchildren.
In her book “Grandmothering While Black: A Twenty-First Century Story of Love, Coercion and Survival,” Pittman, associate professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, plumbs the nuances of the role of contemporary Black grandmothers in today’s landscape.
The Northwestern University alumna collected data from nearly 100 women on Chicago’s South Side for four years through in-depth interviews with the women and ethnographic research via doctor’s visits, welfare offices, school and day care center appointments, and caseworker meetings.
In so doing, Pittman explored the myriad forces that help and hinder their caregiving, taking a deep dive into the relationship between elder and youth where the former is working to fulfill the functions of motherhood without the legal rights of the role.
Pittman, a sociologist, showcases the strategies Black grandmothers use to manage their caregiving role among state and federal systems to ensure the well-being of the next generation.
“This book shows the complexity of what these grandmothers are up against. It’s a lot,” Pittman said. “This long lineage of Black women dealing with a lot and the importance of us in giving voice to what that looks like and giving each other opportunities to share that information … it’s not small.”
Pittman points out research that found more grandparents are currently raising their grandchildren than at any time in American history. The number of U.S. children living in a grandparent’s household more than doubled from 3.2% in 1970 to 8.4% in 2019, with 26% of those children in skipped generation households.
“Grandmothering While Black: A Twenty-First-Century Story of Love, Coercion, and Survival,” by LaShawnDa Pittman (LaShawnDa Pittman/TNS)
Two- and three-generational living arrangements are more prevalent in communities of color, with Black families being more likely than any other group to raise grandchildren in skipped generation households.
The factors that contribute to this range from changes in social and child-welfare policies and practices to increases in divorce rates and single parenthood and declining birth rates and marriage rates, as well as teen pregnancy, mental and physical health issues, child abuse and neglect. Black children also are the most likely to live in a single-parent family.
Compound that with some Black-grandmother-household incomes being at or below federal poverty levels and it raises a lot of questions. “Why and how do Black women’s traditional grandmother roles morph into surrogate parenting? How do they manage the demands of caregiving, including their lack of legal rights, challenges to making ends meet and inability to prioritize their personal lives?” Pittman writes in the book.
“There’s a lot of systemic things that force it upon us. … Incarcerated Black men and women, that’s had a huge ripple effect — it decimated our communities and families,” Pittman said. “It used to be that a Black man could work in some kind of manufacturing job and send their children to college and buy a home. Now, the physical labor jobs are in the service sector, they pay less, they don’t come with benefits, it’s harder to make it. There’s more discrimination. All of those kinds of things matter. Can you afford to live? Forget moving into the middle class, can you even maintain working class and not slip into poverty?”
Over the course of more than 300 pages, Pitman pores over the economic survival strategies Black grandmothers employ during the struggle of kinship care. It’s a mix of “burden and blessing,” rewards and consequences that range from an opportunity to parent again and a sense of purpose, to caregiving restricting retirement freedoms and impairing physical and mental health.
Raised in a family where her grandparents provided assistance to her immediate family, Pittman became interested in Black women and resilience as a graduate student at Northwestern. It was there that Pittman produced a thesis on Black women and their psychological well-being, and another work on the social capital of children in poverty.
All of it revolved around Black grandmothers raising grandchildren. Pittman found her purpose in making sense of the grandmothers’ perspectives, which eventually led to the book.
Sociologist and author LaShawnDa Pittman is an associate professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. (Quinn Russell Brown/TNS)
“You can no longer have a conversation about grandparent caregiving without talking about how they create the structure to provide that care,” she said. “It is not the way that it used to be where Big Mama stepped in, got the baby, enrolled it in school and has this harmonious relationship with parents, where the parent is bettering themselves so they can get their baby back. While that does happen, in too many cases, it does not.
“When conflict happens, and grandparents have no legal rights to their grandchildren, there’s a different set of issues they have to deal with and no book was dealing with that,” Pittman said. “Do I go over the parent and get legal guardianship, prove that the parent is unfit? Do I want to do that to my own child? It’s a complicated set of issues. Caregiving in the 21st century is a story that needs to be told for what it looks like today. How they navigate their lack of legal rights relative to parents, the child welfare system and in some cases, the criminal justice system. How they navigate to get resources, all of that is a big policy story.”
Pittman has spoken to policymakers around the nation to say: “Here are the resources that we say are available to these families, very few, and yet there are still all these barriers that they’re experiencing.”
She hopes her book highlights the travails Black grandmothers face. It’s a written charge for those in positions of power to think about the training of front-line workers who interact with these families.
Pittman said the people who work with skip generation families have a sense of “what did they do to contribute to this happening?”
But she says you shouldn’t assume you know their story. Dealing with the explicit and implicit bias and misinformation in the training of agency representatives will go a long way, she said.
Pittman said too often during her interviews with grandmothers, she found they felt alone in their caregiver role. To help fix that, Pittman is building out her website so Black grandmothers can share resources, knowledge and their stories with one another. She also hopes her book is a shoutout to the Black community.
“It’s raising awareness and providing a sense of solidarity. … It is so important for us to understand what we are asking of our mothers, grandmothers and aunts,” Pittman said. “Understand that these are the kinds of sacrifices, complexities that our mothers and aunties have to deal with. And grandfathers too. Most skip generation households are headed by both grandparents. But Black grandmothers have the distinction of being more likely than all other grandparents of doing this without a parent or a partner.”
Pittman said reaching out to the Black grandmothers in our communities would go a long way. She said Black matriarchs want to sustain their families and communities, but they also need to take care of their own health, and need respite and support.
“If you know there are people in your family who are doing this, see what they need. Don’t assume that they got it,” she said. “I hear people say stuff like, ‘They do it out of love.’ Why should we not make sure that children have what they need in this country regardless of who their caregivers are? We do it for foster parents.”
She looked at how in pop culture, Black grandmothers tend to be romanticized within the Black community and pathologized outside of it. And she wondered: “Where do you go to get a sense of who these women really are?”
That’s why Pittman is focused on making Real Black Grandmothers, the first digital archive created specifically with their reality in mind. Pittman said society has to continue to make changes that will support skipped generation households because putting together two vulnerable populations and asking them to figure it out themselves is asking too much.
“The complexity of what they’re dealing with, the brilliance of ‘we will find a way,’ the brilliance with which they navigated, the strategies they came up with to keep their grandchildren in their care safe and still try to get what they needed, blew me away,” Pittman said. “Yes, they did that in a miraculous and amazing way and it’s still not enough. We need to make it so it’s not so hard.”
©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.