I was determined to be a great mother and a loving daughter: This was easier said than done

As my parents aged, I mourned for their lost independence, and was consumed by guilt for wishing for my freedom

Published November 8, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-718099p1.html'>Willrow Hood</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Willrow Hood via Shutterstock)

My daughter C is six and a half years old. When I look at her, sometimes I see myself, and sometimes I see my husband. She possesses both my ability to be a social butterfly and his stoic nature. And like us, she’s intense.

When she was born to me, in midlife, after a bout of age-related infertility, I was thrilled to have my parents living nearby (my husband’s parents lived in Australia). My mom and dad visited us often. Back in those days, I felt isolated, lonely and clueless. Most of my friends were well past the having babies stage and I hadn’t yet discovered the support structure of the local mom community. Feeling adrift in my new role, I knew I could always count on my parents, especially since my dad always told me I could. Since childhood he’d say to me each time I lost a job, had my heart broken, worried about my future, “Don’t worry. You have your parents and we love you.” The sound of those words was a panacea to my soul.

When my dad retired eight years ago, I noticed a subtle shift in his and mom’s daily routine, and the thrum of their daily life transformed into something far less busy—far more dependent on my presence in their lives. Soon, health issues reared up and threw new challenges in their path. At first, just as when my daughter had a bout of eczema or suffered from diaper rash, the challenges were small: complaints of a cold here, an ache there. Nothing they couldn’t manage. Nothing I couldn’t manage. Over time, their health took a sharp turn for the worse. My hearing-impaired mother’s dangerously high blood pressure went through the roof, requiring constant monitoring. My dad’s memory worsened. Then, three years ago, my dad broke his hip while bowling. I naively thought that because he survived, beating the odds after two surgeries, he would be fine. I was wrong. Though he recovered, he was left with a limping gait and increasingly diminishing cognitive capabilities.

While he was recovering from his broken hip, our relationship started shifting into something more like the caretaking I was already doing with my baby. I’d watch my dad when my mom left for errands because he was frightened to be alone, warned by doctors that another fall could be fatal. Soon the requests became demands. The more fearful they became, the stronger their grip was on me, and my time and my psyche. “If I can’t make it who else do you have to turn to?” I would ask them. “You know I can’t always get a sitter.”

“Can’t you just call a service?” my dad asked me, peering up from his usual spot on their taupe microfiber recliner. By the set of his jaw, I could see he was serious. “No. I can’t have a random person come and babysit my child, just as I wouldn’t have a random person come and stay with you,” I told him, shocked that he’d even suggest it.

While my mom and dad found themselves stymied by once-simple daily tasks like cooking, doing laundry and navigating their ever-increasing sea of doctors, my 3-year-old daughter was mastering several milestones: successfully using the potty and learning to share and giving up her binky. Just as I was learning how to be a good mother, who put her child first, I felt the push-pull-me of the need to be a good daughter. My exhaustion at being C’s mom and losing the parts of myself I used to take for granted—my figure, my energy, my creativity—were now all wrapped up in motherhood, not being a daughter, or a writer, or even a friend. The constant exhaustion made me shorter with my parents—less forgiving of their personality and foibles, where before I would take disagreements or offhand comments in stride. My parents’ lives revolved around where we’d go for the next meal, and my daughter’s revolved around what she was learning or the toys she was playing with. The two didn’t seem to mesh, as when my parents wanted to go out to dinner and I knew that my toddler wouldn’t put up with sitting still. Her banging on the table or playing around with the sugars angered mom and dad—who didn’t remember that a child who didn’t behave wasn’t an affront to them--so I begged off. Eventually, our outings became confined to home visits, which also stressed me out as I waited hand and foot on my increasingly demanding parents, while my daughter started grabbing her own milk boxes and snacks.

I am aware that I’m not the first person in the world with a small child and aging parents. Once upon a time, children didn’t need to find a way to deal with their aging and infirm parents, because people didn’t live that long and people became parents earlier. But having a child in midlife shifts the equation all over again. Caretaking is difficult work. It’s far easier to deal with the bodily and emotional needs of a small child then a senior citizen who is your parent, with all the baggage that implies. The former feels like an investment in the future. The latter is a stark reminder of your own mortality.
My parents’ need for me continued to grow. Both of them got walking pneumonia after going on a cruise—and literally walked around with it after their doctor couldn’t see them. They finally told me about it after they’d gone to urgent care and my dad had to be hospitalized. I called their doctor from my dad’s hospital bed and told her off, saying it was “unacceptable” that her office would put off ailing senior citizens. Then I went home, hugged C and cried. Their desire for independence and their poor judgment shook me. I was consumed with guilt. Maybe I should call more. Maybe I could do more. I felt torn between the increasing needs of my parents and the increasing needs of my daughter. And just like my daughter, who wanted and at times insisted to do more and more on her own, my parents chafed against the reality that they required more and more help on a daily basis.

My child’s buoying independence, on the other hand, was right on schedule. “I want to do it myself, Mommy,” was her mantra, and I reveled in her progression from helpless infant to exploring toddler.

My parents’ bid toward continuing independence was the opposite of successful. First my dad crashed his car while parking it; then both mom and dad started dangerously playing around with their medication dosages, as though they were each conducting their own personal NIH trial. I despaired over their changing circumstance, wracked with guilt over my inability to be totally available to them.

That fall we had many storms. During neighborhood blackouts my parents drove around town in their leased car and frequented local diners, with only a large searchlight as their companion against broken traffic lights, frenzied drivers and empty gas stations. I convinced them to stay with me for a few days, and to get cell phones, because after going into their pitch-black building, I was concerned for their safety. I was further alarmed when my dad brought the contents of his defrosted freezer to me, saying we could cook the food and eat it. (No, No. We couldn’t).

Where I had once accepted their babysitting help, I now hesitated at having them watch my child because my mom had such difficulty with hearing and my dad, feeling pain from his still-healing hip, had difficulty controlling his temper. The combination of this pain and C’s refusal to go to bed when my parents were visiting was not a good one. As I worked on building her emotional resilience, I realized that theirs was dissipating. Soon, I realized that having them babysit was no longer on the table.

I learned that my parents’ longtime friends had been passing away at an alarming rate. As my daughter’s invitations to birthday parties piled up in my inbox, making it harder to carve out time to see mom and dad, my parents’ invitations to funerals, Shiva calls and wakes piled up in theirs.

It appeared that their lives were contracting at the same rate that C’s was expanding. We had become the only stability in their increasingly rocky reality, and they clung to us, just as my girl clung to her precious Teddy Bear.

“We are losing our friends, can you find us new ones?” my dad asked me during one of our daily phone calls. You can look it up on the computer, you know where to find people,” he said, as if I could just conjure up a pair of geographically desirable septuagenarians on a moment's notice. I tried, but there was always something off: the temple didn’t have many couples; the parents of my friends lived too far away. I started resenting my role. I was their daughter, not their social director. It was too much. Besides, my growing girl already needed so much of me, particularly since my husband was traveling often for business.

I’ve always held fast to the philosophy that I’m raising my daughter to be an adult, to one day be without me. Her independence is paramount in our parental priorities. As Kahlil Gibran says in "The Prophet," “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Because my daughter is an only child, and the cousins who are closest in age to her live in Australia, we want her to have a sense of community. To that end we enrolled her in a school that goes from kindergarten until 12th grade and sent her to a summer camp that also will take her through adolescence. Our hope is that she will thrive in a stable educational and social environment and find long-lasting friendships that will become like family, because family can’t be everything. Family shouldn’t be everything. It’s too great of a burden to place on a child, or a parent, no matter the age.

That winter, while we were coughing and sniffling our way through unrelenting colds and sinus infections, my parents became shut-ins, consumed with concern about catching germs, slipping on ice and driving in inclement weather. They were depressed and irritable, snapping at the slightest provocation like adolescents in the throes of hormonal surges.

“Failure to thrive” is what the medical profession labels children who are not growing properly, who lack proper nutrients. Although I’m not a doctor, and my parents were years beyond their childhood, that diagnosis seems accurate.

I realized something else during that season of discontent: that independence—true independence for my parents--just wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t be everything they needed, wanted and demanded. We couldn’t be their only community, and more important, we didn’t want to be.

There also comes a point in time where you will no longer need your parents the way you once did. I had reached that stage.

I was relieved last spring when my parents, faced with and accepting their own limitations, decided to move to an independent living facility hours away, near my sister, whose nest was newly emptied and who had more time to devote to them.

I watched as my parents methodically divested themselves of the detritus of their lives. In record time, they sold their co-op of 40 years, held a furniture fire sale—including heirloom pieces I had no place to store—and brought their leased car back to the dealership.

There would be no more driving for them in their new home, where transport would be provided.

As I stood in the driveway, watching them leave in my sister’s van, packed full of their artwork and clothing, I mourned the passing of time. I mourned the relationship we used to share. I mourned the child I once was, and the adult and mother I now had to be. I mourned for my parents’ lost independence, and was consumed by guilt for wishing for my freedom.

But then, something unexpected happened. In their complex’s dorm-like atmosphere, replete with dining hall, medication-monitoring doctors on call, therapy dogs, Bingo, movie nights and weekly concerts, my parents began recapturing their lost independence. With a like-minded community to now bolster them in their adventures, providing connection and comfort, my parents have become more like the college students they once were. As my daughter launches into girlhood with new milestones—passing the deep-water challenge in camp this past summer, developing firm friendships, reading and writing with increasing accuracy—I see my parents full of anticipation and renewed hope.

These former luddites have now mastered the technology of Google Hangouts so we can chat with visuals. I’m delighted when my mom tells me that they are late to a Bingo game, and have a concert to go to afterwards. My dad, a once-dedicated couch potato after his accident, has taken up playing pool and meets once a week with a group of men in his complex. Here, they are the youngsters of the group, and they bask in that distinction. They see octogenarians and people in their nineties of sound mind and body, and it makes them believe their future is bright, too.

They miss us, I know, and we miss them—I’ve never lived more than a half hour away from them since graduating from college; but they’re also now free from fear, worry and loneliness. And they look forward to our carefully planned visits—one will be on Thanksgiving, where we’ll also celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday.

My mother has joined an art class at the same time that my daughter is taking hers. She’s also started knitting again after 40 years, and has made a hat and scarf for my daughter. My dad has begun working out in his building’s gym, and is deep into a physical therapy program to correct his gait (my sister says he is now walking straighter), as my daughter, more adolescent to me than girl, practices cartwheels and races us down the hallway, her long coltish legs propelling her forward.

I grab C at the end of the hall and rain kisses on her sweet-smelling hair. “No matter what, whether you are happy or sad, whether I’m happy or sad—you’ll always have mommy and daddy’s love,” I tell her.

Real love, which stands despite time and distance, is not based on dependence or need — but connection.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think it takes a village to raise us all.

By Estelle Erasmus

Estelle Erasmus is a journalist and writing coach. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post,Salon, Vox and Next Avenue/PBS, among other places. She can be found at her website and on Twitter at @EstelleSErasmus. She is working on a memoir.

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