Caring for Our Parents

… a Sandwich Generationer's perspective

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

The ‘Daughter’ hat…

I wear many hats in my life – mom, wife, daughter, friend, sister, marketer, mentor, volunteer… As I interview many of you, I learned how different and similar our hats are.  This is not surprising to me since we’re all different yet linked together by commonalities.  For most of us being a ‘mom’ and ‘wife’ are consistently the first two hats we mention.  However, the ‘daughter’ hat seems to be a bit of a mystery to me.  It rarely comes up with many of you until I mention it.  Even then, I hear a quiet over the phone… “uh… yeah… of course I’m a daughter…”  Yet there seems to be a great variance in what it means to each of us.

Some of you mention that it’s not a hat you think about because you don’t have to wear it very often.  Others mention that the label is not really relevant to you any more because you are no longer a child and your relationship with your parents has evolved to one more of peers.  Finally, there is the group that I fall into… those that list it right up there with mom and spouse.  We seems to be in the minority in my current sample. (I need more victims to interview!)  Interestingly enough, while cultural heritage is a factor, it does not seem to be the driver.  It seems to be more consistently related to the role we each play within our families at this point in our lives.

Of course, the label alone is meaningless, what is relevant is the significance behind it.  For me, being a ‘daughter’ has always been a hat I wear.  I am the only girl in the family and I come from a traditional Southern European heritage where the girls are the caretakers and the ‘glue’ that holds the family together.  For those of you who share this caretaker role within your own families, this seems to bring up the ‘daughter’/’son’ hat consistently.

If this is a sound hypothesis, then I am curious about whether this hat pops in and out of our lives like some of the others (ie. ‘mom’, ‘wife’).  Afterall, we are born with the hat… do we eventually take it off?  I’ve never thought about whether I will continue to wear it once my parents are gone.  Do people ever ‘pick it up and put it on’ after not having worn it for a long time?

Our definitions for ‘daughter’ are so varied.  I can’t seem to crystalize it into a common one.  The meanings vary.  Sometimes it relates to a childhood stage or a state of dependance.  Sometimes, it’s a simple label in the family tree with no further association.  Yet sometimes, it is a label deeply connected to fond memories and self-imposed expectations.

As a ‘wife’, I partner.  As a ‘mom’, I care.  As a ‘friend’, I empathize.  As a ‘sister’, I admire.  As a ‘marketer’, I do.  As a ‘mentor’, I encourage.  As a ‘volunteer’, I give.  As a ‘daughter’, I…

(all of the above plus pay it back?)

Hmmm…I’m going to have to think about this one.

[Please post a comment with your definition of ‘daughter’]

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“Tic, toc, tic, toc… what’s important depends on the urgency”

I just got off the phone with a dear friend and here is her story…

“Suddenly it hit me.  They are not who they use to be.

My parents have always been my rock.  The ones I relied on.  The ones who were always there for anything and everything.  I have always felt their support like a warm blanket around me.

From one day to the next I realized how selfish I had been.  My eyes were opened to them getting older and to how I continued to behave like a child.  While I was depending on them, I totally overlooked that they had started depending on me too and I hadn’t been there for them.  How sobering to think that I was no longer their little girl and needed to own up to it.  I needed to start behaving like such.

They say that Awareness is the first step.  You leave Denial on the path to Acceptance, right?  No one ever tells you about the guilt that comes with the Awareness.

The problem has been defined but I don’t have a solution.  The guilt is ever present but I don’t have a solution to make it go away.  There is so much more I should have done… there is so much more I need to be doing… there is so much more I need to be ready to do.  Will it ever be enough? Will I ever find peace?

I’m lost in a world of rocks and hard plates.  No matter what I do, there’s always an upside and a downside.  My father needs a hearing aid but he can’t afford it.  If I buy it for him, I hurt his ego, damage his dignity and rob his independence.  Yet, he’ll be able to hear again and his frustration will diminish.  What’s the right choice?  It depends right?

My mother is caring for my sister who just moved back home.  I see her getting tired and stressed from having to care for someone again – doing laundry, making meals, cleaning, etc. Do I put my foot down and tell her to stop because it’s going to make her sick?

When making decisions, I tend to prioritize what is important vs. what is urgent.  Prioritize what is most important and most urgent and go down from there.  I learned long ago that with parents, time is a critical factor.  Things that get deprioritized today because they are not urgent can become a priority quickly.  You simply don’t know whether they will be there tomorrow.  It’s the 20/20 hindsight that brings the ‘should haves’ to keep you up at night.

I wish I would have had a friend tell me this years ago.  I would have made different decisions.  I would have prioritized things differently.  I always thought I had plenty of time.

So back to my decisions… Is it important for my father to hear? Yes.  Is it more or less important than preserving his independence and dignity? It depends… In the short term, dignity and independence are more important.  Yet, the longer he goes without hearing, the more damage that is done, the more isolated he gets, the more likely he is to get depressed and increase  his anxiety.

Time…

I’ll buy him the hearing aid, even if it causes him pain.  I will prioritize his physical need over his emotional need.  The long-term physical gain outweighs the short-term emotional discomfort.  I do realize that, if he wins the lottery tomorrow (or something else changes the situation), all this will be for not and the emotional pain will not have been worth it.

Is it important for me to tell my mom my sister is taking advantage of her and that she needs to stop?  Yes.  Is it more or less important than preserving her dignity and letting her be a mom again? No…  This one is easier.  If she were to get sick tomorrow, I know her well enough to know that she would think it was well worth it.  Feeling useful brings meaning to her life.  I can’t rob her of that.

I can’t keep the ‘should haves’ from the past from keeping me up at night but I can certainly try to keep new ones from emerging.”

“… but I have to make sure they are happy!”

Isn’t it funny how we take on particular roles intended to contribute to other’s lives whether they are wanted or not?  I have always been a ‘pleaser’.  I am consistently described as ‘responsible and consciencious’.  (I’ll take ‘responsible’ but really, who wants to be described as ‘consciencious’… seriously?!)  My whole life I have always struggled with feeling like I have to please those around me, particularly those I love.  Of course, this was definitely true for my parents.  I remember trying to figure out what I wanted to study in college and being a little sad because I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer like dad nor did I have an ounce of artistic talent like mom.  After much soul searching I did find something I was passionate about but I felt sad that they did not seem as interested or proud about my career as I wanted them to be.  It’s not that they weren’t proud, of course they were.  Biochemistry was just not interesting to them… (Hey now …  it is too interesting!).

Looking back, I realize that I’ve always assigned myself the task of trying to keep my parents happy.  When I was a kid, I would write them letters for their birthdays telling them how wonderful and amazing they were.  I got such a kick out of watching them so proud and happy.  As I got older, I was the permanent side-kick in everything they did.  Their ever-present companion.  Actually, my Senior year in high school I was almost not allowed to graduate because I had traveled so much with them for my dad’s work that I wasn’t going to meet the minimum requirements for attendance.  I remember telling them and feeling so bad that I was inconveniencing them by having to stay put so I could finish school.  When they fought, I would listen and try to empathize.  I would listen more than any daughter should have to hear about her parent but always happy to do it to help them through the venting phase.  Hoping for a quick reconciliation so everything could go back to normal.  When they were sad, I always tried to cheer them up.  As the youngest, I was so worried when I moved away to college that I seriously wondered if they would be able to cope without me (whatever would they do?!).  Not surprisingly, they not only survived but embraced the new phase incredibly gracefully just like they had done with every other one in their lives.

I have always felt so good over the years as I’ve brought them joy, whether with big things or small.  However, I must admit I often found myself happily playing unproductive and enabling roles.  On and off over the last 20 years, I have been my dad’s personal assistant. “Good for you, helping your dad out”, you say… except there was a particular time when he was already retired and I was working full time and had two small children (…and one too many loose screws in my head)!  Yet, every single one of these unproductive roles I played was one I chose to take on.  They were never requested…definitely embraced and encouraged by them… but never, ever, requested.

Of course, I always felt incredibly guilty when I had to say no.  (‘Pleasers’ don’t like that word… it really scares us. We believe the world will actually stop spinning if we overuse it. That’s why we save it for the most dire of situations.)  Over the years, I have been known to say no (after much therapy and my husband’s patient and endless encouragement).  I’m still not great at it and I do find myself saying yes more often than I say no but I am getting better.  I realize I need to set limits not only for my sanity but because it’s important for them to know where they are.  I realize how unfair it is to be miserable and blame them when I’m the one responsible.  What’s really interesting is that I believe that limits make my children strong, independent, empowered individuals and helps them realize they are not the center of the universe.  Why don’t I think this applies to my parents?

I now know it’s OK to want my parents to be happy but it’s not OK to need my parents to be happy.  I’m not the ‘happiness’ elf.  Although… if only I could be…

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