Navigating the Sandwich
When A Good Daughter Hates Caring for Her Aging Mother
She thought she hated being run around by a demanding mother. Then she discovered what she really hated
“My first resolution for 2019 is to stop complaining so much about my fucking mother,” I said to my significant other on New Year’s Day this year.
She’s 92, and bravely facing her twilight, a widow just doing her best to get by in the familiar comfort of her home of 40 years. From my point of view, she’s self-absorbed and inexcusably dependent; has been her whole life.
I’m obviously a hideous person. Who could say such things about her own mother?
It’s just that she gets me so angry.
I’m not talking garden-variety annoyance, though I experience that, too. I’m talking bomb cyclone. This dramatic meteorological phrase perfectly characterizes my category-five internal weather at times. When it blows over, I feel enormous shame about my anger. The kind of shame that wakes me at three in the morning to beat me up. To echo Nora Ephron, I feel so bad about my feelings!
I was at the grocery store the other day in line behind two lovely teenage boys. “They were so polite and nice,” the cashier said to me. I complimented her on how nice she sounded with them and she replied, “I like young people. I used to do elder-care, but I came to hate it because old people complain too much. Especially aged baby-boomers who feel entitled. It wore me down.”
I wanted to kiss her for her honesty.
1. Annoyance. Mom “forgets” to bring her wallet to restaurants, so I’m obliged to pay. Mom “forgets” her cane when I take her out in the world (she doesn’t want people to think she’s old, she once confessed) so she makes like an albatross on my
2. Frustration. I recently went to some effort at her request to find her a new orthopedist because she disliked how her original one rushed through appointments. But then she decided it wasn’t her shoulder that hurt, it was her groin. “Okay, Mom, we’ll look into it,” I said and I cancelled the doctor I’d just found.
3. Resentment. Caused by #1 and #2 above. My mother didn’t work for a living and so has always prioritized spontaneity. To survive juggling a staff-job for 30 years while parenting three children as a single mother — I had to kiss spontaneity goodbye in favor of planning, organizing, scheduling. She doesn’t get this, and blithely calls at the last minute for help getting to long-standing appointments.
4. Anger. An ugly sludge builds in me during my days when I have to give half my work day over to caregiving. While I love my mother, there are times when I have to face the grim fact that I don’t enjoy her company. Rather than have a real conversation in which being honest would involve disagreeing with her, I go into my fake, submissive, yes-woman persona to get through these visits.
Mom lived alone self-sufficiently until recent years, when things around the house — like stairs — started to get dangerous. The turning point for me, however, came after a couple of shrill calls about the smoke alarms just as I was sitting down to dinner in my home 40 minutes away.
“Mom, stop yelling,” I’d say. “At least it’s not you burned to a crisp!”
We children decided it was time for scheduled caregivers. Even she agrees that more “company” will be good. “But not live-ins.”
The agencies cost too much so we’re using word-of-mouth to hire part-time helpers. But it’s like herding cats to get them to show up on time. Inevitably, there are last-minute cancellations. And then come the hysterical emails from Mom with the subject line: Damn! Damn! Damn!
I’m pressing the point that it’d be better to institute a more organized, full time caregiver set-up. Alas, Mom has shot down all the candidates we’ve come up with like so many ducks at a carnival shooting gallery. “Too mousy.” “Too gossipy; I don’t want my business spread all over town.” I think the veto-power helps her to feel in-control and alive.
Then, Mom says, “I don’t want to be a burden to any of you.” Translation: I wish one of you would come live with me.
I’ve grown weary of the constant complaining and the expectation that my siblings and I will step in to solve every problem. (Not all ninety-somethings are this dependent, I recently learned. My best friend has a mother nearly the same age who is way more independent and competent; she just sold her house, packed up and moved into the city from the burbs without a peep to her children.)
My mother is, fortunately for you, not your mother. Surely I’ll be infuriating my children in my unique ways a few short decades from now (if I’m lucky). But what is shared among many of us adult children seems to be a distaste for this task. I thought I was prepared for this stage, but it has blindsided me.
I’ve learned I’m not alone in my reactions.
I asked myself why this mother-care is so disturbing and came up with a couple of reasons. One: it just feels crummy to see myself begrudging, withholding, patronizing, spiteful. That’s not me.
Two: isn’t it a violation of the natural order to be parenting the parent as he or she becomes the toddler, especially at a time in our lives when we’ve just finished raising our actual toddlers into adolescence or twentysomething-hood? Why, just when we get to reclaim a life for ourselves — are we dragged right back into servitude? And who wants to see their parent’s naked, wrinkly old
For help with this monstrous swamp of emotions, I turned to Dr. Gretchen Kubacky, a Los Angeles psychologist and Certified Bereavement Facilitator. I asked her 1) what are the origins of such unwieldy feelings and 2) WTF can I — or someone in my same predicament — do to get back to some semblance of yogic balance?
Dr. Kubacky refers to herself on her website as Dr. Gretchen, so I’ll call her that. She says the various feelings we adult-children experience may be connected to the natural order being upended, “but really, it’s just a hope that we won’t all need care like this in the end. Fear of loss, or anticipatory grief, can produce intense feelings of grief, sadness, and longing or yearning — for what will be missed, for things to be the way they were.”
But what triggers that extra dollop of negative feeling?
“I think the rage about the helplessness or incompetence ties into frustration and fear about one’s own decline or demise. It’s right in your face, this person who probably looks something like you, decaying, and that’s scary. Also, depending upon the person’s diagnosis (for example, some dementias), they may be undergoing a significant personality transformation or loss of memory that is also scary, confusing, and fear-inducing. We expect children to be ‘incompetent,’ but we don’t expect that of adults.”
When I rant a bit about my mother’s assumption that her children will jump through hoops to help her stay at home despite the time-suck her insistence on jerry-rigging imposes, Dr. Gretchen answers
I share with her this platitude that seems to rise above the din of unsolicited advice from friends: “You’re lucky that your mother is still above ground to complain about.” I’ve tried to let that inspire me, with only minor success. Dr. Gretchen rejects attitude-adjustment.
“You are not required to be grateful, and you are not a bad person if you’re not only not grateful, but also a little angry, bitter, and resentful. Sometimes there is great beauty in caregiving, but it’s hard to focus on that when you’re overwhelmed with duties.”
Or in my case, overwhelmed with anger.
“Anger is often the cover emotion for sadness,” she says.
Oh, did I leave out sadness? I guess I did. Add that to the list. “And, there’s a great deal to be angry about in a caregiving position. You miss out on
Dr. Gretchen distinguishes between the current back-burnering of our own priorities and needs, and past back-burnering: “We have a saying, ‘If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.’ In other words, when you’re having a strong visceral emotional response to something, it’s probably not just about what’s happening in the moment. It probably has its roots in old family dynamics.”
Bingo, that’s me. (And I thought this interview with Dr. Gretchen was going to help you.)
Now I know where my missing compassion has been all this time: buried deep beneath unfinished business. Being raised by a self-absorbed mother takes its toll. Mine taught me not to speak up about my needs or insist upon my wants. She told me that was selfish, and I learned I was a selfish, bad girl. I’ve been mindful of that for years, but only now — when the tables have turned and I’m begrudging my mother her needs because she didn’t let me have mine — do I really see that the anger I’ve carried with me through the decades isn’t helpful.
Dr. Gretchen brings it back to sadness: “Maybe you have always been longing to be cared for fully by her, and now that she is on the tail-end of life, it is inescapably clear that she will never care for you the way you wanted her to.”
Does that mean that to properly grieve childhood hurts, you have to let the anger ferment into sadness?
“No,” replies Dr. Gretchen, “I say have the sadness AND the anger. Grief is non-linear. That old Elisabeth Kubler-Ross thing (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) sounds all neat and tidy and linear, and it’s just not. You can have all of the emotions, only one or two, skip through a couple, find one arising in five years, and so on. Don’t manage your emotions; let them come to the surface, air them out, and release or integrate them as needed. Repeat until you feel better.”
I do occasionally find it rewarding when I inadvertently make my mother happy by offering her an extra hug at the door, inputting contacts into the speed dial area of her phone so she thinks I’m a genius, telling her her hair looks beautiful, or showing up unexpectedly with dinner on a cold, dark winter night. Then she gives me a bright smile of relief. Maybe instead of thinking “she’ll be dead soon, so be nice now,” I will try pulling the curtain back on my anger to encourage the more delicate, shy feelings to step forward out of my past. If that clears the way for some “great beauty” moments, it’s worth it. I’m betting those will nourish us both.
What’s a grown child to do? Whether you’re experiencing mild annoyance or gigantic resentment, current back-burnering or past sadness in disguise, here are Dr. Gretchen’s steps for moving yourself forward:
Start a conversation in public “No shame in acknowledging the feelings. Like with this article. Also, have individual conversations with people who are in the same position, quite possibly any of your similarly aged friends. You will soon find an abundance of similar feelings.”
Seek out regular support “Friends first, then therapy, and perhaps some sort of online support group (because when you’re busy caregiving, you don’t have a lot of time to get out to a meeting).”
Set boundaries I’d already set my own Mom boundaries: roughly two half-days a week for FaceTime, and the inevitable emails, phone calls, and administrative work on top of that. (My two siblings handle plenty of other matters.) I’m continually trying to clue in the team of helpers and random friends and neighbors to the fact that I have a day job, because they seem to assume that I can just drop everything. Dr. Gretchen says: “Boundaries are everything. Enlist friends or neighbors to check in on the parent while you’re at work… Sign up for a meal-delivery service for them… And take time out for what feels like self-care for you.”
Meditate “Self-care isn’t just about the spas-and-bubble baths type of thing that populates the media. Meditate — now! Download the free Insight Timer Meditation app and pick something. Don’t tell me you don’t have time! One of my favorite meditations is less than two minutes long. Have compassion for yourself and the complexity of feelings you have surrounding this person’s process of aging and
A note about Anonymous: I only have about ten friends, but if one of them saw my name attached to this, and chose to pass it along to Mom, well, I’d be left with nine friends and a needlessly hurt mother. It’s compassion more than shame, I’m fairly certain, that has led me to write anonymously here. While my mother has a remarkable new capacity for openness and honesty as she approaches the edge of the cliff and looks backward to take stock, I see no reason to drag her through the parts of our shared past that would only ignite her sense of failure.