I’ve said many times that few things are more disorienting than the shift from being cared for by your parents to caring for your parents. The only thing that makes it harder is when your parent (or spouse) has dementia. This is quite possibly the most challenging of all situations.
Every Sunday, I allow myself the pleasure of spending time on Krista Tippett’s website, www.onbeing.org. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled onto a podcast entitled, “The Myth of Closure” with family therapist Pauline Boss.
She’s coined the phrase “ambiguous loss,” which I find revelatory. Ambiguous loss refers to “a loss that is unclear, that has no resolution or closure”…. Where a loved one’s “status as absent or present remains hazy.”
My neighbor George is not a daughter but he’s certainly part of the daughterhood. You see, until a year ago, he spent most of his time taking care of his parents in the home they shared.
Now, from my perspective, he was the best kind of son any parents could hope to have and he fully embodied the spirit of honoring your mother and father.
But from his perspective, he was constantly failing.
Once he relayed a story to me about how he was in the kitchen one night making dinner for his parents – both bed bound in different rooms upstairs. As he’s running the food trays up and down the stairs, as he did for every meal, suddenly his mother calls out, “Come sit with me.”
There is almost nothing in life more stressful than feeling like you are 100 percent responsible for a situation over which you have zero control.
This is happening a lot these days in my house because somehow, somewhere, my daughter has grown into a teenager and I’ve lost control of all but the biggest decisions in her life.
At least she’s my daughter and I am nominally in charge. So as stressful as it is, it’s only a fraction of the stress women face when they feel like they’re entirely responsible for their parents’ health and safety, but, at the same time, have no control over their parents behavior or the choices they make.
This is a recipe for a nervous breakdown — when you have all of the responsibility but none of the authority!
It seems like I’ve been exhausted for 20 years. In just the last few months I’ve been waking up to the realization that this fatigue is the direct result of much-too-loose personal and professional boundaries. I’ve spent so much time and energy in my life doing things that I can’t or don’t want to do –that I am just plain tired.
There’s an epidemic of “can’t say no” among the women I know. But, I think it’s especially difficult for daughters – to say no to a parent who wants to move in, to say no to unreasonable requests from siblings or paid caregivers, or to bow out of community obligations that are just too much on top of caregiving demands.
As a caregiver, it’s essential that you become an expert in setting boundaries. Boundaries are the flip side of asking for help. And if you can do both… if you can learn to say, “No” and “I need your help,” you might just survive this experience.
I’ve always had a hard time with planning. I find the process of “thinking things through” boring and tedious. Occasionally this impulsiveness gets me in over my head. Like the time I ordered 20 zillion ivy seedlings for the shady part of my backyard without realizing that the soil was more clay than dirt. Getting those little buggers in the ground was much harder than I thought it would be — to the extent I had thought about it at all.
However, I’ve found that leaping before thinking has a nice side benefit. It gets you in the game. If you don’t know what’s ahead, you are much less likely to sit on the sidelines. Once 100 tiny plants arrive on your doorstep, you’re committed to their survival, no matter what the obstacle. Would I have ordered them if I had known what I was going to come up against? Probably Not. Am I glad now that I did? Definitely.
I’ve been noticing that when I get caught in the undertow of feeling like a failure at parenting, it makes me really angst-y and hyper-controlling with my kids, especially my 15-year-old daughter, Grace. This happened last week when, mid-stream in spring softball tryouts, she suggested that maybe she wasn’t really all that keen to play softball after all. Turns out the practices were sort of grueling and boring and she’d rather be hangin’ with her girlfriends at Starbucks.
This made me worried. Inner dialogue: “Does this mean colleges will think Daughter is lazy? She needs to play softball! I’m going to talk to her. I am going to point out how to her how important it is to be involved in activities!” I love watching her play but I also love how it makes me feel — like a rock star mom — when I see her out there tearing up the field. And, if she’s just sitting around every afternoon, what does that say about my competence as a mother?