Judy Howard is raising her son’s child and it has opened her up to a whole new world.
Judy Howard gets up before the sun rises over Farmingdale, turns on a light for a pet hermit crab, feeds her cats, exercises, packs lunches, double-checks a backpack and a dance bag and, after breakfast, does the daycare drop-off on her way to work as an administrative assistant. She’s 62.
“Is this where I thought I’d be at this point in my life?” says Howard. “No. But apparently it’s right where I am supposed to be.”
For nearly eight years, Howard has been raising her granddaughter Sicily, who is now 10 and in fifth grade.
Sicily is one of up to 6,000 children in “kinship care” in Maine, being raised by grandparents, other relatives or “fictive kin,” such as a close family friend, according to the most recent statistics from child advocacy nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation. The number shifts frequently because the children might be moved between family members and other situations, but that’s more than three times the 1,900 Maine children in foster care. And Census data from 2017 suggests the number of kinship families could be quite a bit higher, given that 18,000 Maine children were living in a home owned by a relative other than their parents. In Howard’s case, she’s taking care of her son’s child.
“These are family members who have stepped up to take care of a child and, of course, as we get older that’s not always as easy as one would think,” says Howard, who attends monthly support meetings with Kinship Families of Central Maine in Waterville (for details, find them on Facebook). “We give of our heart, our soul, our money, our time and our energy, and we do it all for the sake of a child. I work full time, and I have a mom who is 80. I have days when I fall short in every way. I tell myself that I move mountains every day and I’m not going to focus on that pebble I missed.”
The backstory as to how a divorcee, a widower and a foster child became a loving family of three begins in the late 1970s. Howard and another Navy wife, Sandi Sipe, were raising their sons on the island of Sicily. They formed a friendship that outlasted both their marriages. In 2008, Sipe reached out to Howard and asked her to come for a visit. Sipe was remarried, living in Florida and reaching the end of her battle with colon cancer. Sipe died three months later, but because of that visit, Judy had gotten to know her old friend’s second husband, Scott Sipe.
“We’re both confident that Sandi was setting us up,” Scott Sipe says. “We hit it off right away and had a lot in common through Sandi.”
Two years later, two things happened: First, Sipe, moved in with Howard, who jokes that she was ready to ride off on the back of his motorcycle. Second, the mother of two grown sons became a grandmother. Howard was there when her daughter-in-law gave birth to a baby girl.
“That just took my breath away,” she says.
The baby was named after the Italian island Howard loved so much, and where her own son had been an infant. Howard was able to take care of baby Sicily a few hours at a time, once a week or so. But then, when Sicily wasn’t quite 2, her parents moved from Maine to Florida.
“I remember the first time I got to Skype with her and she was kissing the screen,” Howard said. “Things like that will melt your heart.”
Sicily’s father was—and still is—in the Merchant Marines, which keeps him away for months at a time. He depended on his wife to do the childrearing, as had been the case with his parents’ marriage. But, while Sicily’s mother was living alone with her toddler, she was, Howard now knows, addicted to opiates and in treatment. Within months, Sicily was found wandering the neighborhood in her diaper in the middle of the night. Howard got a call that her granddaughter was in foster care. Within a few months, Howard was standing in front of a judge in Florida, petitioning for temporary custody. Sicily’s maternal grandparents wanted her, as well.
“I remember the first time I got to Skype with her and she was kissing the screen. Things like that will melt your heart.”
“Between the case workers and the guardian ad litem and the judge, the decision was made that I would be the best fit,” Howard says. She introduced her granddaughter to her beau, “Mr. Scott” as Sipe is known, and the three of them went home to Maine, where they have lived together ever since.
Howard’s daughter-in-law was ordered to complete rehab and a parenting program before she could visit with Sicily. “She never did,” Sipe says. “But she’d disappear for three or four months at a time, and she’d call back strung out.” Last year, Howard found out that Sicily’s mother had died of an overdose.
Sicily visits with her mother’s family but was never reunited with her mother—which haunts Howard, who can’t stop herself from wondering whether a visit would have made a difference. But, focused on Sicily’s well-being, Howard had said that her visit requirements were the same as the state of Florida’s.
“Sicily’s mother truly loved her daughter,” Howard says. “She couldn’t overcome. Such a waste. Such a loss, to lose your life to addiction and not see your child grow up. Some days I look at that little girl and see a facial expression or a certain movement or a certain like or dislike, and I think, ‘She’s just like her mother!’”
Sicily’s father now has two families to visit when he gets leave—his girlfriend and their toddler in the Philippines and his mother and daughter in Maine. His trips to Maine are short. It’s clear that Sicily’s home is with the couple she affectionately calls Mammee and Mr. Scott. Howard takes Sicily and school friends up to camp in Kingsbury Plantation, making sure the girls’ parents understand there’s no cell reception, no electricity and no running water. In the woods, Howard shares treasures of her own childhood with her grandchild. They swim, kayak, catch frogs and play lawn games. “Remember the old lawn darts that were probably deemed dangerous?” Howard says, laughing.
The world has changed, and so have parenting styles.
“When I grew up, you sat at the table, you didn’t tip your chair, you didn’t wear a hat, no radio, you ate what was put in front of you and you cleaned your plate,” Howard says. “Today, when I go to my granddaughter’s school, I have to be buzzed in. And it’s scary. I wonder, have I prepared her enough without making her paranoid? But she keeps me young. She opens up a whole new world to me. I know different music now, I keep more active, I watch different shows. I’ve loosened up a bit, I’m not as rigid—well, my body is, but my mind isn’t.”
Opportunities for Howard and Sipe to take out that motorcycle for those trips they once imagined would fill their weekend days are rare. But they have no regrets.
“We really enjoy an evening watching TV, Sicily leaning her head on my shoulder,” Sipe says. “We’ve both reached the age, Judy and I, when we realize what’s important. It’s those moments that important. I love that little girl.”
Howard can’t even count how many times well-meaning people have said they couldn’t do what she’s doing—raising another child. But, she says, “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had just said ‘Whatever happens happens.’ Every child deserves parents who are loving, nurturing, caring and willing to give them the skills they need to be successful,” she says. Sometimes, those parents are also grandparents.
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough whose daughter is friends with a teen being raised in a kinship family.