A few million US grandmas know what's ahead for Katherine Jackson

The mother of the King of Pop joins, at least for now, the ranks of grandparents raising grandchildren.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Katherine Jackson (2nd r.) sits with Michael Jackson's children (l.-r.) Prince Michael, Prince Michael II, and Paris during memorial services for pop star Michael Jackson in Los Angeles Tuesday.

Michael Jackson's mother, Katherine Jackson, raised nine children, but the last came of legal age when she was 54. Raising her late son's three children, ages 7 to 12, now, at age 79, would be another challenge unto itself, and it's one that nearly 3 million American families tackle – although they're not necessarily the families you might think they are.

"People's idea about grandparents and grandchildren living together was of an elderly African-American woman living in the inner city with no spouse present," says Kenneth Bryson, director of the National Center on Grandfamilies, in Washington. "That's actually very uncommon."

It's true that African-American children are more likely to live with grandparents than white children are, but of all grandparent households, fewer than one-third are African-American. More than 40 percent of grandparent households are white, according to the Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey, and the remainder are other races and ethnicities.

White, black, or purple, the challenges confronting grandparents who, like Mrs. Jackson, unexpectedly find themselves with young children to raise can be daunting.

"Many ... are caring for their grandchildren on an emergency basis," says Mr. Bryson. As a result, they may find themselves suddenly looking for affordable housing that can accommodate extra children or that is child-proof.

The importance of custody

If grandparents do not have legal custody of the children, relatively simple procedures, such as enrolling them in school or making medical decisions can become much more difficult.

"We're talking about going to court," Bryson says, "and caregivers are reluctant to essentially challenge the right of the biological parent to have custody."

In the case of the three Jackson children, their father's will awarded full custody and control of his estate to Mrs. Jackson, often described as a deeply religious and quiet woman, who still lives in the family's California compound. A court has granted her temporary custody pending a hearing next week. (Debbie Rowe, mother of two of the children, has yet to say whether she will seek custody.)

While Mrs. Jackson's musician husband, Joe, toured with The Jackson 5 and often enjoyed the spotlight, she was most comfortable out of it. Her relationship with Michael, portrayed in a 1992 television miniseries starring Angela Bassett, is said to have been protective. By all accounts, including Michael's, the two remained very close over the years.

Finances can pinch

After jumping during the 1990s, the number of grandparent-headed households grew by fewer than 1 million over the past decade. One in 4 such households lives below the poverty line, compared with 17 percent for the general population. Grandparent-headed families make up 2.7 percent of all US households.

Grandparent-headed households are racially and ethnically diverse, with the greatest share residing in Hawaii, childhood home of President Obama, who was raised by his grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham.

Roughly 5 percent of African-American children live with their grandparents, compared with less than 2 percent of white children, according to 2008 census data.

Some cite the crack-cocaine epidemic. Others point to higher incarceration rates and poverty in the black community. But there is little evidence to support generalizations, says Bert Hayslip, a professor of psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton and one of the earliest researchers on grandparent families.

"There's a lot that we don't know," Dr. Hayslip says, about why grandparent households vary by race and ethnicity or even why grandparents become the primary caregivers in the first place.

Advice for Mrs. Jackson

Catherine Lee, who cares for three grandchildren, too, lives a world away from Mrs. Jackson in New York's South Bronx. Her charges are 16, 9, and almost 2.

Ms. Lee's advice for her now-famous peer?

"Prepare for rebellion and resentment," she says, because "this generation is more defiant and they will test you."

But keeping up with her grandchildren, especially the baby, helps to keep her young, she adds.

"I gets around," she says. "People be shocked when I tell them I'm 70."

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