Tuesday, October 05, 1999

Grandparents take a chance on heartbreak

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Rosie calls me Mamaw. This is an honorary title, which does not appear on any legal documents.

        When my daughter was pregnant, she asked what I'd like my first grandchild to call me. Finally, I decided I would like to be known as the Main Grandma, and my son-in-law's mother could be the Auxiliary Grandmother. Of course, when my granddaughter started to talk, I didn't care. Whatever name she came up with that referred to me was just right. Perfect, in fact.

        Just like Rosie herself.

Disney and Skittles
        Her parents are kind enough to allow me continued access to this child, even though I have exposed her to country music and Godiva chocolate. They will permit the occasional sleepover, although once we stayed up all night in a Disney orgy — watching The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp until we fell asleep in a disgraceful snarl of afghans, Skittles and popcorn.

        They believe I am indulgent, but not dangerous. For this I am grateful. And completely aware that, like her birth, this is their choice. It is my choice and my risk to give her my heart.

        I offer these personal confidences as proof that I am fully credentialed to peer over the black-clad shoulders of the U.S. Supreme Court justices as they consider grandparents' rights. They've agreed to take up the question of whether a state can award visitation rights to grandparents.

        Gary and Jenifer Troxel of Anacortes, Wash., want to continue their relationship with their deceased son's young daughters over the objections of the girls' mother. Washington state lawmakers have said a person other than a parent can seek visitation rights.

        Under that law, the Troxels won a court order in 1993 to spend one weekend a month and one week during the summer with their granddaughters. Last year, the state Supreme Court sided with the mother.

        “Parents have a fundamental right to autonomy in child-rearing decisions,” and “state intervention to better a child's quality of life through third-party visitation is not justified where the child's circumstances are otherwise satisfactory,” these judges ruled.

Purely indulgent
        There was no hint that these children were abused or neglected. It was about the rights of the grandparents, not the rights of the children. Or the parents. The Troxels asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider that decision, and last week the justices agreed.

        This has nothing to do with the 5.5 million children in this country who live with their grandparents, in which more than half do not have either parent present. This is not about custodial care. It is about being a grandparent, in the purest, most voluntary, most indulgent sense.

        Groups such as the formidable American Association of Retired Persons have taken up the cause. This reminds me of the scene in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes when Kathy Bates rams a car driven by a younger woman. “I'm older, richer and have more insurance.”

        And a more powerful lobby.

        The nine federal justices — six of whom are grandparents themselves — have said they will hear arguments in January and render a decision by June of next year.

        “We're ecstatic that this is going to be heard,” Jenifer Troxel told reporters. “We think it's important to grandparents all over the nation.”

        But what about grandchildren's rights? Is it really better for the court to step in and demand that kids be thrown in the middle of adults in conflict? Wouldn't it be better to remove one more temptation for adults to have at each other in court with the prize being a child?

        Maybe by the time we're old enough for our children to be having children, we should be old enough to understand that it is not up to the courts to protect us from heartbreak. And that the position of grandparent is not a right. It is a privilege.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com