When their second and youngest child left for college, Steve and Cathy Mathes looked forward to a retirement full of golf trips and the option — but not the need — to start a new job.
They never expected their home to be filled once again with the sounds of an infant crying and siblings fighting. Yet their 3,000-square-foot home — the one they downsized to after their two children left — is now home to five children of the Matheses’ daughter, who lost custody of them.
On a warm Friday afternoon, Blake, 10, plays with his sister Kyleigh, 17 months, and relays messages to Cathy Mathes from Bryce, 6, who is grumpy from the afternoon nap he took at the kitchen table. Nathan, 4, goes back and forth from watching TV with Bryce to hanging out with Brent, 8, who is outside with a friend weaving rubber band bracelets they plan to give to cancer patients at the children’s hospital.
The Matheses have taken care of their grandchildren off and on since Blake was born.
“Basically I would spend the whole week with my Mamie (Cathy) and spend two days with my mom,” says Blake, eager to be a part of the conversation.
“So, most of your life,” Steve Mathes says.
“We were able to get an agreement with our daughter that allowed us to do that on our own,” Cathy says. “Blake knows his mom has ... we call it an illness.”
“Do you hate to talk about it?,” she asks him.
“Yep,” Blake says without looking up from his rubber band bracelet loom.
The illness Cathy Mathes refers to is her daughter’s drug addiction. They spare the details. Instead, they say they’re thankful for the circumstances that allowed them to adopt the children. The boys’ adoption was finalized in September, and Kyleigh was officially adopted this month.
One of the biggest obstacles now is fitting in as both grandparents and parents in society. Paralleling young parents and their duties — such as going to PTA meetings and supporting the kids at sporting events — can sometimes be awkward, Cathy Mathes said.
“You don’t necessarily fit in,” she said.
The family recently reached out to Peaceful Family Solutions, a faith-based nonprofit that provides counseling and networking for grandparents raising grandchildren, also known as grandfamilies or skip-generation families.
Brent Katigan, co-founder of Peaceful Family Solutions, said the idea for the service came about in January. The Matheses are one of six families he sees. He wants his nonprofit to become a one-stop shop for grandfamilies.
Each family member will undergo counseling. In addition, Katigan and his partner, Mike Barcum, are working with churches and other nonprofits in the area to provide services such as grandparents’ nights out and camping trips.
Oklahoma law requires the Department of Human Services to provide an educational program and an informational brochure for skip-generation families. Jane Garner, DHS Aging Services Programs field representative, said one organization, Sunbeam Family Services, provides help for grandfamilies in the Oklahoma City metro area.
But there are almost 6,000 grandparents in Oklahoma City who are responsible for a grandchild without the child’s parent living under the same roof, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the state, that number is 19,561 grandparents. And according to AARP, there are nearly 1 million children in the U.S. living under the care of their grandparents without the child’s parent present in the home.
Most grandparents raising their grandchildren are between ages 55 and 64. Cathy Mathes is 54, and Steve is 59. And although Cathy said they’ve always been an active couple, their increasing age makes it harder to raise children.
Days at the Mathes house are “chaos,” Cathy said. Steve works full-time again, and Cathy stays at home with the children. She has two dishwashers, and the couple joke about how two clothes washers and dryers would be beneficial.
Katigan said the Matheses benefit from their health and comfortable middle-class life. He estimates about half of the skip-generation families he’s found are at or below the poverty line.
“(Cathy’s) more willing to step forward, and hopefully she’s speaking for some people who can’t do that and would like some help,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think they’re completely alone.”
Even though their retirement is filled with less golf and more chores than the Matheses expected, Cathy said raising her grandchildren has been a fulfilling experience.
“There’s so much life,” she said. “I love doing the school thing. I love taking them to their sports, I like seeing them grow. I look at all the stuff grandparents miss when they see their grandchildren once every couple of weeks. I get a little extra.”