Charlotte Benson and her 6-year-old granddaughter, Mariah Benson, are huddled in front of a computer in the corner of their dining room in Chester.
It’s Monday morning, time for Mariah to start her online home-school lessons.
“Yes, I made an A,” the girl says excitedly as she checks her previous assignments. “You proud?”
Of course Charlotte is. Mariah, who has been living with her grandmother since last summer, is learning quickly.
Mariah then spontaneously leans over, stretches her arms around Charlotte and says, “I love you, Grandma.”
Moments like that are part of the emotional reward that comes for the growing number of grandparents who find themselves raising their children’s children.
Statistics published by AARP show more than 60,600 grandparents in Virginia are in situations like Charlotte Benson’s.
And a 2012 regional study on aging reported that more than 550 grandparents over the age of 60 in Chesterfield County are responsible for their grandchildren.
Raising her granddaughter is mostly a positive experience, said Benson, who lives with another daughter and son-in-law. She helps them with their two children because they are both in the military. But it comes with its own set of challenges.
For example, the only reason Mariah takes home-school courses is because Benson could not enroll her in public school.
Benson has power of attorney for Mariah, but the girl’s mother still has legal custody. Benson said Mariah’s mother spends most of her time on the road as a commercial truck driver, but is hesitant to completely sign away custody.
So Benson tries to do the best she can for Mariah while navigating a delicate family relationship. But without custody, she also has been unable to get her granddaughter health insurance.
Last summer, a cut on Mariah’s foot became infected.
“I was caught between do I take her to a doctor or do I try to fix it myself,” Benson said. “I ended up taking her to the hospital.”
When the bill came, Benson owed $400 for the minor injury.
Chesterfield County Senior Advocate Debbie Leidheiser has coordinated monthly meetings for people like Benson since 2009. She is planning a conference for the fall that will include speakers on topics relevant to grandparents and separate activities for the children.
During those monthly meetings, which usually draw a dozen or so grandparents, Leidheiser has learned many of the ups and downs that come with raising a grandchild.
Many struggle financially because they are living on a fixed retirement income. Some do not have the energy they used to, making it difficult to keep up with small kids. Others are overwhelmed by new technology when trying to help with homework. And some can feel isolated when trying to participate in after-school activities because all the other parents are much younger.
“It’s hard, but they’re just glad that they’re there to give these children the best life that they can,” Leidheiser said. “It’s really a neat time that they can build that relationship with the grandchildren that they may not have otherwise.”
One of the toughest questions for grandparents to answer is why a child isn’t living with his or her parents.
“Every day she’ll say, ‘Where’s my mommy at?’ ” Benson said. “‘When’s my mommy coming back? Why is my mommy not here?’ ”
Benson never imagined her retirement would be spent teaching a young girl to read and roller-skate. Benson saw herself using these years to travel.
But the daily routine — from the schoolwork to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunchtime to getting Mariah ready for bed — is perfect in its own way.
Benson worked two jobs to provide for her three children. She wasn’t around for them as much as she would have liked.
Mariah is her second chance, with no stress from long workdays to interfere.
“My children’s biggest complaint was I was not there when they had school activity,” Benson said. “(With Mariah), I’m here 24/7. I get to spend a lot of time with her. That’s good for us. We’ve got a bonding.”