MacKenzie Jackson, center, was just awarded custody of her younger siblings, Meagan, 16, and Spencer, 14, in the wake of their parents’ deaths. (Photo: GoFundMe)
After both of MacKenzie Jackson’s parents died within two years of each other, the then-18-year-old became resolute about keeping what was left of her family together — and that meant fighting tooth and nail to gain guardianship of her brother, Spencer, 14, and sister, Meagan, 16, who had been taken into foster care. MacKenzie, of West Fargo, N.D., won that battle in February and this week was awarded something even bigger: full custody of her siblings, ensuring that their family will not be torn apart again.
“It’s incredible. I never thought I would’ve been in a position to be parenting now,” MacKenzie tells Yahoo Parenting. “I don’t have to deal with people telling me what to do now. It is kind of scary, too, but I have a bunch of family nearby to back me up when I need it.”
On a GoFundMe page started for their family, which has brought in more than $18,000 so far, MacKenzie recently wrote about overcoming her doubts. “Not a day goes by that we don’t think about our parents or have questions that none of us can answer. I had doubt in myself, but that never once stopped me from keeping what I had left together. Meagan and Spencer had so much faith in me, and that’s what pushed me to keep going, the day they came home I’ll never forget, because their smiles on their faces made me so happy.”
The Jackson kids had a rocky existence even before their parents died: Their mom struggled with drug use and health problems from the time they were all little, and their father had kidney failure, according to People.
From left: Meagan, Spencer, and MacKenzie. (Photo: Facebook)
After their mother died in 2012, at the age of 39, MacKenzie stepped into the role of mom for her younger siblings, shuttling them between school and appointments and taking care of grocery shopping and meals, as their father turned to drinking and had deteriorating health. Her brother and sibling, meanwhile, were taken into foster care. Shortly after that, MacKenzie found her father in bed, not breathing.
“I felt him, and he was cold like my mom was when she died,” she told People. “I knew that he was gone.” She also knew then that she had to become Spencer and Meagan’s legal guardian, explaining, “My older family members can become their guardian, but I am definitely giving it a shot first. … I am so nervous. But I will get them. I will raise them and know that my parents are by my side in spirit encouraging me to do a great job.”
She was granted guardianship in February, telling Valley News Live, “Any emotion you can feel I’m probably that.” Spencer and Meagan moved home and bonded as a family unit — and MacKenzie is now getting ready to start cosmetology school. Though the reunion was joyous, it was far from easy.
“Some days will be tougher than others,” she tells Yahoo Parenting, and financial worries, she adds, “stress me out every day.” But her sister helps make ends meet by working at a local daycare center, and MacKenzie still gets to do things she wants to do, such as have a boyfriend, she notes. But, she admits, “Some days I just want to cry, though I don’t. It is tough for sure.”
A 19-year-old having to parent two teenagers while simultaneously making her own way in the world and grieving the double loss of her parents will certainly be fraught with challenges. But according to teen and adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg, “Taking care of her younger siblings will help with her grief, because it will give her a reason for being.” She adds that MacKenzie, by all accounts, sounds like a “realistic” young woman who certainly appears to have the ability to raise her brother and sister well.
“Age,” she says, “is not always the best determinant of who a good caregiver is. She could be a much better parent than someone who’s 35.” MacKenzie knows them better than anyone — and there’s not likely to be resentment on either side, she explains, as “these kids are really wanted, and it seems like something [MacKenzie] really wants to do. She fought for these kids.”
Vicki Panaccione, a child clinical psychologist and the founder of the Better Parenting Institute, spoke with NPR several years ago about the issue of an older sibling taking on parental roles. She says that suddenly being the adult of the house, as a teenager, can be a “culture shock” of “Oh, my gosh — I’m not a kid anymore. I’m totally in charge. There’s nobody that I can go to. There’s no one who can step up to the plate and help me. I’m it.” Also, when an older sibling becomes officially in charge, the arrangement can strengthen family bonds — but sometimes it can strain them.
“It can actually go either way,” Panaccione says. “There can be great resentment or a very close kind of protectiveness among the clan.”
So far, with the Jacksons, it seems like the latter is winning out. “One minute we went from arguing every day with our disagreements to always saying ‘I love you’ before we go to bed,” MacKenzie noted on GoFundMe. “No matter how much we get mad at each other, at the end of the day we set the differences aside.”