A new Netflix movie stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as aging neighbors who strike up a relationship after their spouses have died. Seemingly a story of two seniors looking to overcome their own inhibitions to spark an autumnal romance, Our Souls at Night turns into something else when the true obstacle to their relationship emerges: midway through the film, Fonda’s character must step in and start raising her grandson after the child’s mother abandons her family, and the Fonda character’s son—the boy’s father—descends into alcoholism. At that point, I found myself thinking I’d just seen this story, and more or less I had. In a recent Netflix series, The Ranch, a crusty, aging Colorado cattleman played by Sam Elliot strikes up a romance with a waitress at the local Cracker Barrel after his wife leaves him, only to have the affair short-circuit when the woman must rush off to care for her grandson after her daughter, a single mother, enters rehab.

In a film and television world dominated by superhero movies and dystopian TV series, it was striking that two of the few entertainments I’ve seen recently about the lives of ordinary people featured storylines with grandparents raising grandchildren. But the rise of single-parent families—more than one-third of American children now live with an unmarried parent—combined with growing drug-addiction rates has left more and more children without an available mother or father. The result is an emerging crisis that’s forcing grandparents to step in late in life and begin parenting all over again. The data attest to it: the number of children being raised by grandparents has been rising steadily, from 2.5 million in 2005 to about 2.9 million by 2015, according to Pew.

Of course, stories of orphans raised or rescued by grandparents or other relatives have been a staple of literature of hundreds of years. The Swiss novel Heidi, about an orphaned girl raised by her embittered grandfather, remains popular 140 years after its publication and has spawned movies, plays, and sequels. Charles Dickens’s numerous orphans include Great Expectations’s Pip, initially raised by his sister, and Esther Summerson in Bleak House, who lives with a woman whom she doesn’t know is her aunt. Those tales are from an era, however, before modern medicine, when an epidemic could take parents’ lives quickly, leaving children in peril. Today’s technology has tamed many of those risks, but new, self-inflicted ones have emerged.

Thus, the subject of grandparents raising their grandkids has become commonplace. The website raisingyourgrandchildren.com offers information on where to find government help and other forms of financial assistance, on how to parent today’s kids, and on what kinds of legal issues a grandparent must address. Shelves of academic literature exist on grandparents as legal guardians, with research on the impact of parenting on their health (it can cause depression), the psychological effect on kids (“children raised by their grandparents often encounter behavioral, emotional, and academic problems at school”), and the impact on family income (not good, unsurprisingly) when a grandparent takes in the kids.

Whole categories of books exist on the subject, including how-to titles like The Grandfamily Guidebook: Wisdom and Support for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a first-person account titled Ticklebelly Hill: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, and The Grandparents, dedicated to those “who suffer the consequences of the decisions made by their offspring.” A growing genre of children’s books on the issue has appeared, written (as so many children’s books seem to be these days) to explain to kids why their lives have been turned upside down; titles include Sometimes It's Grandmas and Grandpas: Not Mommies and Daddies and I Call My Grandpa "Dad.”

Life among grandparents raising grandchildren can be complicated when combined with the other social problems today’s families face. In the film Black or White, Kevin Costner plays a white grandfather struggling to control his drinking while raising his biracial granddaughter after the girl’s mother—his daughter—dies. Enter the girl’s drug-addicted father and grandmother, who demand custody; an unsettling court battle ensues. The movie’s weakness—only 39 percent of critics on rottentomatoes.com said they liked it—is that it tries to tap into so many contemporary problems that it overwhelms the viewer.

On the other hand, the narrative of grandparents raising the kids has become the occasion for inspirational stories, epitomized in Hallmark Movie Channel releases like A Grandpa for Christmas, in which Ernest Borgnine plays a retired actor who steps in to care for the granddaughter he doesn’t know when his estranged daughter, a single mom, winds up in the hospital. Then you have the universal salve—a dog. In Christmas with Tucker, a young boy, living on his grandparents’ farm after his father dies and his mother retreats into herself, grows attached to a dog he takes in, until a neighbor demands it back. Safe to say (this is Hallmark, after all), things eventually work out.

How this emerging genre will evolve depends on how the demographics changing America play out. The shrinking of two-parent families means that when today’s kids start having children—20 years or so hence—there’ll be far fewer grandparents around who have played a role in their kids’ lives to step in and care for the grandchildren when their parents fail them. What happens then? The answer may lie in another troubling trend—the sharp rise in the number of children in foster care over the last few years, which may only get worse. It won’t be easy for the next generation of Hollywood screenwriters or authors of children’s books to fashion that reality into inspirational tales—unless they make them fantasies.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images


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