One of the things I try to remind myself of during the very real struggle of getting my girls to school on time each morning—or during the afternoons when I rely on office staff to relay the message that I’m running late to pick them up—is that the struggle of trying to keep so many balls in the air, even while scrambling to make ends meet, is a privilege not afforded to everyone.
It’s been in the back of my mind since I gathered in Oakland with Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant III, and moms of adult children from across the United States whose lives have been cut short by police violence, who in many cases are now raising or helping to raise the grandchildren left behind. I think about this also as I cross paths with social workers and foster parents who underscore the fact that the need for homes outweighs the availability of them. I thought about it yesterday when I watched a man hold the hand of his 85-year-old mother and his 22-year-old daughter—who was just 12 when her dad went to prison—on his first day in the free world after being incarcerated for the past decade.
One grandmother who has been on my mind since she crossed my path at an Oscar Grant Foundation event in Oakland, is Ronda Dormeus. Dormeus is raising her 9-year-old granddaughter in the absence of her daughter, the child’s mother, Korryn Gaines, who was shot and killed by police over an unresolved traffic violation seven years ago. The case weighs heavily on me for many reasons. For one, I’m the mother of a soon-to-be-9-year-old daughter who’s in the same grade as Korryn Gaines’ youngest child. I can’t help thinking of how many memories and moments I’ve collected with my child and her older sister since she was 2 years old, the age Gaines’ youngest child was when she lost her mother. And, doing this makes me grateful for every one of those moments, including the most chaotic ones when we’re racing with the clock or bickering over the appropriateness of Halloween costumes.
The other thing that my mom reminded me of this morning, when I spoke to her about trying to leave the East Bay to visit her over the holidays, is that I, too, have an unresolved traffic violation in the state of Wisconsin, the place where my mom resides. This summer I acquired a speeding ticket for going 31 mph in a 25-mph zone while en route to surprise my niece by picking her up from middle school. In spite of my best intentions, I forgot all about the ticket until last week when my mom read me a letter she received in the mailbox of her Wisconsin home saying that my failure to resolve the matter resulted in the temporary suspension of my driving privileges in the state of Wisconsin.
I use my own shortcoming not as an excuse, but to demonstrate just how easy it is to lose track of all the moving parts of life as a working, single mom. And, while I understand the need to resolve the issue, I cannot fathom it being a life-or-death sentence.
What I learned from interviewing Ronda Dormeus is that Korryn Gaines was a successful 23-year-old beautician who was well-read, well-traveled and raising her then-infant 14-month-old daughter, who was not home during the incident, and her 5-year-old son, who was home and injured during the shootout, and who put her kids at the front and loved them to pieces. Gaines’ life ended the day police visited her home with a warrant relating to her traffic violations.
“After a six-hour standoff, my daughter was shot through the wall—by the officer’s own admission—killing her and injuring my grandson, who now lives with his father,” Dormeus said. “And I began raising her 14-month-old granddaughter.” This puts Dormeus in the company of as many as a third of American grandparents, who are raising their children’s children.
“I acquired a child who had never had a bottle, who was used to breastfeeding and being with her mother,” Dormeus said. “It was hard at first, but now I can’t imagine anything other than raising her. She keeps me sane. She gives me a reason to get out of bed every day and to keep fighting for change.”
Dormeus believes that had her daughter lived, she would be thriving as a 30-year-old entrepreneur and salon owner excited to pick her kids up and drop them off each day. Although her daughter died too soon, she did not die in vain. Dormeus founded the organization Say Her Name, along with other moms connected by the trauma of losing their daughters prematurely.
“It’s an organization that uplifts women, who are often more marginalized and less talked about than their male counterparts, who tend to be in the spotlight when it comes to the issue of police brutality,” Dormeus said. Even though the process of change is long and slow, she said, it’s important to keep fighting for small measures of justice, to vote in local elections, and to keep remembering so that more people like her daughter can have a chance to raise their children while hustling to get their kids to and from school each morning and afternoon.
While looking into the issue of intergenerational child rearing, I talked with L.M. Stevens, a pastor in Contra Costa County and foster parent to two teenagers, who was raised by her grandmother. Stevens refers to the woman who is her biological grandmother as “mom” and the woman who gave birth to her by her first name. While her biological mother couldn’t shake a lifetime struggle with substance dependency, her grandmother stepped in and raised her as her own.
“I have a great relationship with my mom—who is my biological grandmother,” Stevens said, as one of her foster kids bid her “goodnight” in the background of the Zoom screen. She revealed that foster parents like her get a small caregiving stipend to meet the needs of the foster children in their care. “The thing that doesn’t feel fair is that biological families don’t get those kinds of care stipends for covering the expenses, feeding and caring for their own children,” she said. “If they did, I wonder how many different outcomes and intact families there might be?”
The next time a parent feels ready to scream because their child refuses to get up on time in the morning or fights with his or her sibling, or because they feel like they’re falling hopelessly short as a parent, I invite them to count their blessings. And, if they’re among those who are growing up apart from their family, they should remember that they’re not alone.