We All Are Kin: Relating to the Kinship Experience

Karissa Phelps, Esq., MSW, Stoneleigh Foundation Emerging Leader Fellow, Temple Legal Aid,
grandpa holding a toddler on the beach

Something as intimate—and potentially invasive—as creating policies that dictate which familial connections are protected and upheld requires a recognition that we all have family. Whether this includes blood relatives or “chosen family” (both of which are considered “kin”), we all deeply desire familial connection. These relationships validate us and offer us acceptance, support, and belonging. Having this support system of kin is particularly critical when a biological parent becomes unable to care for a child. In this blog, I will examine the value we attribute to our own familial connections, so that we can better empathize with the experiences of kinship caregivers, and therefore craft policies that more effectively support these caregivers.

In Pennsylvania, 103,000 children live with relatives in households where no parent is present. These relatives are considered “kinship caregivers.” Many families find themselves supporting and caring for children due to issues of parental incapacity. Not only is staying with kin better for kids than the alternative of foster care, but there is also deep commitment among families to stick together.

Who are kin?

Consider your own circle of kin. Who are you committed to keeping in your life? Which of those people have children, or are children? What would you do if the children you love faced the loss of their parents or became unsafe in their care? Would you be willing or able to become a kinship caregiver?

When do we call on kin for support?

It usually starts with a crisis. Someone you love gets arrested, experiences a mental break, or loses their housing. Maybe this crisis has been building over time, or maybe you suddenly discover an addiction you never knew was present. Perhaps you get the dreaded call that someone you love has died.

What happens to kids when parents face a crisis? Kin often step up:

“I felt I had no choice… my granddaughter brought me her baby while she found a place to live. That was it. There was nothing else I could do. I couldn’t say ‘Take her someplace else’ or ‘We’re too old to be raising a kid.’ There was no choice.”

“I felt from the bottom of my heart my granddaughter needed me to provide for her properly, but most importantly to protect her life from her mother's (my daughter’s) horrible mental instability and drug habits – which had continued to create one scary circumstance after the other for my beloved grandbaby.”

Kinship caregiving is the responsibility of raising someone else’s children, which often means sacrificing your own comfort and stability and extending yourself and your resources:

“It’s like raising my son all over again, [my grandson’s] like mine. It’s like I have a baby all over again – without the labor pains. [Laughs.]”

“There are times when it’s getting on the last nerve that I have – I’m holding on by a string – and I [yell]. When she does something, I’m like, ‘You knew better than that!’ I have to remember she’s 4 years old. It’s my job to keep reminding her until she really knows better. …It’s remembering that they don’t know things until you teach them.”

“[My great-granddaughter] is stubborn. She fights me on some things, like brushing her teeth. She says she wants all her teeth to fall out so she can have dentures like me. [Laughs.]”

In addition to assuming the responsibility of childrearing, kin often must confront many additional challenges related to taking care of the child. Taking on the care of a child may also include dealing with another family members’ addiction, crises, violence, or mental illness. They likely feel the grief of death, loss, and disappointment. Kin risk heartbreak, bankruptcy, and even sometimes their own health and wellbeing when taking on the role of kinship caregiver.

“My wife’s cancer came back. It was hard for me to take care of them both. I bathed my wife while my great-granddaughter slept, I was always back and forth… That was a very difficult time. The hardest thing I’ve done – explaining to our great-granddaughter that my wife is not coming back.”

“I knew I was going to be involved… My [teenage] son didn’t have a job and he would need our help. It was difficult – him being so young, and still having to go to school, at the time I had medical issues, even though I was sick, I still have to help my son with the baby, because we didn’t want him to grow up in that living environment [with his mom].”

“My relationship with my daughter is very toxic... She's assaulted me twice since my granddaughter has been born. I tried to stay level headed and push the toxicity to the side so that my granddaughter doesn't feel the negative energy.”

Still, it is the value of family, and love of the children, that motivates such sacrifice.

“[My grandson] is a joy in my life after losing my own mom. He took that void, eases the pain… I love seeing him grow, the things he’s learning, his first steps, his first words, the love that we all have for one another.”

“[My great-granddaughter] asks questions about EVERYTHING. …It keeps my mind working! It keeps me thinking. I always have to do something with her: she loves to dance, so I’m dancing. I put her bike in the car, we go to the park, she rides and I’m running behind or beside her. She keeps me active – my mind active, my body active. I love to watch her grow and the things she comes up with that surprises me.”

“It’s been an excellent experience… [but] there’s nothing that replaces biological mother and father. I can step in as grandmother, but it’s nothing like knowing them.”

To develop policies to honor family connectedness and encourage interfamilial support we must think about what life would look life if each of us were asked to step up to care for a loved one’s child? What would we need to stay safe and keep the child safe? What would we need to make ends meet? What support would we want so that we could stretch ourselves to care for a child we love? Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Let’s create policies that encourage the commitment of families to stay together through the toughest of times.