I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Suffer the Children

A big part of the intermittent nature of my blogging is that my Mom is unwell at the moment. Over the past several weeks, some friends of mine have also been dealing with parents who are unwell. Some have chronic illnesses, some only temporary discomforts, some have parents who contracted various diseases and are likely to not survive for much longer, some are dealing with parents who are not specifically ill but who have reached an age where they can no longer live by themselves. I've got a pretty wide age group of friends, so this means that for some of them, this is happening at the expected time - meaning they are in their 50's and their parents are in their 70's or 80's. For some (like myself) it seems to be happening all too early. I'm only in my 30's and my Mum is in her 60's - several decades too young for either of us to have to deal with this. My sister and I have had to make decisions about things I never thought I'd  need to...but then I suppose we had to bury a father many decades before we thought we might need to as well. Time waits for no man, or so the cliche goes.

The details around the responsibility for these situations are vastly different as well. In my case, the care of my Mom falls entirely to my sister because I am tens of thousands of miles away. In other cases, my friends are single children, or single children by default (as is the case for my sister) and so they bear the burden of the day-to-day tasks whether they like it or not. In some cases they might be one of many siblings, but the only one with either the time or the mental strength to take care of things, and in some cases there are plenty of siblings to share the load.

What strikes me as interesting in experiencing my own situation and observing that of others, is that having to swap roles from child to adult is extremely hard. It doesn't matter how strong or weak your relationship is with your parents, or how much you felt they either raised you right or raised you wrong. What matters is that awful realisation that they won't live forever, that they won't be the main decision makers in a time of crisis, they can't be the one you turn to for guidance about how to deal with all of this.  When you're dealing with an elderly or sick parent, it's suddenly YOU who needs to be the parent. You might need to do the little things; drive them to appointments, fill prescriptions, make phone calls, organise meals, pay bills. You might need to do the bigger things; choose a course of medical action, intervene on their behalf to get them access to care, make decisions on when to go to hospice and when to keep fighting. Of course we all know intellectually that Mom or Dad isn't going to live forever. After all, living and dying are part of the normal course of events. We know too that there is no 'timeline' for these things - some will die young, some will die old, some will defy odds and some will become statistics. Regardless of the details, the simple truth is always there: we don't expect to have to be (and frankly, don't really want to be) the ones taking care of our parents.

There is no nice way to say this, so I won't even try to sugar coat it: having to swap roles from child to parent FOR one's parents is by far the hardest part of the life cycle. Maybe in some ways even harder than dealing with their death. Depending on the timing, some people are trapped in the middle, needing to parent both their children AND their parents and in some cases meeting the same needs (feeding, dressing) for both ends of the life spectrum.

I could write an entirely different blog post about the responsibilities children have to their parents. For example, one of the blogs I read (very sporadically, she does not blog much) is about a former successful professional pastry chef who abandoned her career to look after her ailing mother. Her mother shows no signs of passing on but requires full time care, so her mother has become the centre of this woman's universe. Not only does she no longer work, she also is forced to live away from her own partner and children in order to take care of her Mom. I'm not going to pass judgement, I'm not going to say if I think she is doing the right thing or not - I'm just going to say that it's such a sad state of affairs, that the life of this woman is put on hold. I guess there are some who would say that earlier on, the mother's life was put on hold as she raised her children and ran a household.  How many women do I know that stopped working and chose not to pursue their dreams because they felt raising their children was far more important? Plenty. Is it then those children's responsibility to do the same when their parent needs them to? Honestly, I'm not entirely sure.

In regards to my own situation, someone who I respect very much said to me, "At the end of the day, your Mom is a grown-up. She is not your responsibility."  The words were very hard to hear. I'm not sure I agree with it, mostly because they imply (to me) a fairly selfish standpoint, and I believe that family members are ALWAYS our responsibility, grown up or not - but I'd be lying if I said that it did not give me pause a number of times.  At what point in time - if ever - does our responsibility to our parents end? Are we supposed to sacrifice our own lives for their care? Are we somehow selfish if we choose not to?

Becoming the parents to our parents, at any stage of our own lives, is a hugely painful experience.

The irony of all of this is that, as children, we can't wait to grow up. As adults, we wish we didn't have to.


Rachel said...

I'm so sorry your mum is poorly, and I hope she is able to make a full recovery. This is such a tough part of life - my father is now in his early 80's so it's probably going to happen in the not too distant future. I don't know how to answer your questions, I guess it just depends on the individual circumstances.
R xx

Claire - Matching Pegs said...

Man, you are asking the easy questions tonight!

At the moment there are times when I help my parents to actively parent both of my adult siblings who for various reasons, do not live entirely independently.

Generally my Mum and I work as a team on the minutia of tricky stuff that crops up, but Dad steps in on big decisions.

I have just gained a nephew who needs help for his parents to look after him, and I know I will be making the really hard decisions for at least one of my siblings when my parents can't anymore, and possibly for my nephew as well.

The day when my Mother can no longer give me her advice, or input on these very complicated situations is the day I will probably feel the most lonely in my life. My hubby is a fantastic support, but they are not his siblings.

I don't agree that "your mother is not your responsibility", we all have connections that are an important part of being human. I do, however, think that it is important not to sacrifice everything. Sometimes it is very difficult to find the middle ground, though.

I figure that if I stepped back and washed my hands of responsibility, then I would no longer be "me" and I would no longer be able to look myself in the eye in the mirror.

I am so sorry that you are going through this with your Mum. This is when it must be so hard to be on the other side of the world, for everyone in your family.

I am thinking of you, for what it is worth.

emzeegee & the hungry three said...

Rachel - thanks for your comment, and yes I suppose it's very much an individual thing as each parent and each child differ so much. Best of luck with the homeschooling, soundslike it's already turning out better than hoped! :) - M

Claire - I thought of you a lot while writing this, because I know your care is more about your siblings than your parents. Finding the balance, as you said, is really the key but also quite difficult. For me, the distance makes that balance harder again. On the one hand, I feel as though I should be there as much as I can, but on the other I have a family and business of my own here who need me on a daily basis. It's very hard to choose between competing responsibilities and obligations. I too could never just wash my hands of it - but I struggle with guilt and frustration over the situation pretty much daily.

As always, thanks for your insight. You've always been, and remain, an inspiration.

- M

Miss Cocoapops said...

I read an article a while ago about "the sandwich generation", which is women who are looking after kids still at home, and also elderly parents. It was saying that because women are having children later in life this is now becoming more common. This is the case for me, and it is very hard juggling a child, a husband, a home, a job, a mother. But we do what we have to until we can't do it any more! You are being a very supportive sister and doing what you can to help in a difficult situation, there really is nothing more that you can do. I do believe we are responsible for our parents if they need us, but I also believe our children and spouse is our number one priority.