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Domestic draftees

When Mom or Dad goes off to war, grandparents and other relatives step in to help care for the children.

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Saturday has become one of the busiest days of the week for Patti Abbate. Until recently, it was a time for errands, shopping, cleaning - all the mundane tasks that never get done during the week.

But last month Ms. Abbate, who owns Sunrise Public Relations in Needham, Mass., began devoting Saturdays to her two young nieces. She serves waffles for breakfast. She chauffeurs them to ballet and gymnastics classes. She also arranges play dates and ferries them to birthday parties.

It's all part of her new domestic role as a stand-in for the girls' mother, Kathleen Anderson, who is Abbate's sister. Mrs. Anderson, a nurse in the Naval Reserve, has been called up for active duty in Bethesda, Md.

"It's a family affair," says Abbate, explaining that a team of relatives helps her sister's husband, Kurt, care for 7-year-old Molly and 4-year-old Martha.

Call them stand-in parents, or domestic draftees, or family conscripts.

Whatever their unofficial title, they are grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who have been recruited on the home front to care for children whose parents have been deployed for military duty. Largely invisible and unheralded, they form a growing cadre of caregivers across the country. As they rearrange schedules at work and home, they play an essential role in keeping family life running smoothly. Whatever their sacrifices, many find satisfaction in these roles. Some also say the arrangements are strengthening family bonds.

"We look at this as a wonderful opportunity to be with our grandchildren," says Jeannine Hirtle of Arlington, Texas, referring to the time she and her husband, Bill, are spending with their son's young family while he is in Iraq.

No statistics track the number of these stand-in parents. But as more women serve in the military - currently 212,000 out of a total force of 1.4 million - more families face situations like the Andersons'. The growing ranks of single custodial parents and families in which both parents are deployed also increase the need for help from relatives.

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