Steve and Diane Kinney have raised their four children and become grandparents four times over, a role they enjoy. But when their oldest daughter Jen suffered a debilitating stroke four years ago, they found themselves once again as parents.
Jen's daughter Patti was five when her mother suffered a series of the strokes that left her with aphasia and other complications that meant she could not care for her daughter as a single mother. Steve and Diane immediately stepped up to care for Patti, a circumstance they now know is permanent. It has changed their relationship with her forever. They are finding a way to be her parents as well as her grandparents.
Steve said they had had 19 years as hockey parents and were enjoying their first taste of empty nesting and a break from parenting when everything changed.
The couple barely had time to take in what had happened to their daughter before they became responsible for their granddaughter. Diane said at first they hoped it would be a temporary situation. "But as time went by it became clear that is wasn't temporary - that this is the way it was going to be. That was a defining moment for me."
In those early days when she came to live with them, it was difficult according to the Kinneys, both on Patti and them. The Kinneys say they still were acting as her grandparents. It was their daughter Lisa who pointed out that their role had to change for Patti's sake as well as their own."
"Patti really ruled the roost when she first came to live with us...and she was very hard on Steve. It was Lisa who told us that we had to step up and be parents, not grandparents, to Patti to make this thing work," said Diane.
But changing roles hasn't been just a question of reverting to what they did with their own children. Being a parent to Patti's generation is different than what the Kinneys remember.
"Everything is different - discipline, what they see and hear and who we are now as opposed to back then, not to mention the cost of a babysitter," said Steve.
Every aspect of their lives has been affected. They had thought they might be semi-retired from their business, Ameriprise Financial and spending several days a week at a cabin up north, enjoying their hobbies and their friends. Instead they are putting a fourth-grader on the bus every morning, struggling over math homework, attending teacher conferences and concerts and drop-offs at karate practice.
The Kinneys are keenly aware that Patti has had to make equally as hard adjustments as has Jen. "It is difficult for everybody. Where does mom (Jen) fit in all of this? It is hard for her, for Patti, for us. It is uncertain what the future holds for Jen," said Diane.
The Kinneys said they took care of the legal end of things right away, establishing themselves as Patti's legal guardians and making her home with them. "Everyone had to know what was going to happen," said Steve.
Next Diane set about seeing what resources were available to them and to Patti. A county program, Kinship, provides a small financial stipend in support of Patti, and she is entitled to some Social Security because her mother is permanently disabled. But those resources are small and the Kinneys expect to put off retirement as they prepare for Patti's future including college.
Diane said they have learned that in their new role, they have to find time for themselves both mentally and physically. To that end they take time each week to workout at the YMCA. "We had to explain to Patti that she needed to go to before school care those days because we needed to do this. If we are going to be there for her, we need to stay strong and healthy."
The Kinneys say they have had the support of friends and family to help them through the transition. At the invitation of relatives Mike and Deb O'Keefe, the Kinneys took Patti to Maine for a vacation where they would be "grandparents again, doing the things grandparents do."
"I can't say I ever wanted to go to a zoo again but it was fun taking Patti and her cousins and getting photos. They boogie-boarded in the ocean and took her to all the places we would have as grandparents. We had a ball," said Steve.
Friends Angie and George Farrell have been another source of support. "They knew and were very close to Jen. Angie is a social worker and she kind of mentored us through this parenting process and how to help Patti keep some relationship with her mom," said Diane.
Diane said the most difficult thing might be not having the time to grieve the loss of the daughter she knew or to deal with the fear and anger about what has happened to their family. She sees a counselor and believes that just having someone to talk to about what she feels and what she is experiencing is making a very positive difference.
To that end, she has been working for the past several months on establishing a support group for grandparents and family members who find themselves in a situation similar to theirs. "There is so much to be gained from talking with others in a same spot as you are. Sharing experiences and learning from one another's mistakes and successes is something we could all use."
The group is confidential and meets the first Tuesday of the month in the Hudson Library at 7 p.m. For more information contact Diane at 715-386-8989 or 715-220-2774.
The Kinneys, all three of them, are finding their way in this new relationship. Patti has demonstrated an interest in hunting and fishing, something Steve is looking forward to sharing with her. And Diane says the family has settled into a "new normal."
And no matter what, when it comes to parenting, one rule still seems to apply - take it a day at a time.