Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Parenting Parents

My father is dying.

You wouldn't know it to look at him, and a few months ago you wouldn't have known it to talk with him.

He's not dying a quick death by a fierce enemy. He's not dying a lingering death with an expected date of departure. He's suffering a slow withering, a cowardly eating away of his brain by a stealthy cheat. Over the last ten years we've watched as his "self" has softly, quietly stepped back, back, back, as if sneaking out of the frame of a photo while no one was looking.

These days we see his shell, the picture of who he was, but the man is all but gone.

But this post isn't about him or about how I'm dealing with his decline. This is about my mom and the relationship I have with her.

How do you parent a parent? My mom right now needs a mother to hold her and nurture her while her soulmate dies. Even while her mother was alive, she was never the nurturing sort, so my mom always talked with my sisters and me about things that were difficult or troubling. She needs a mom's lap to curl up in, a mother to stroke her hair while she cries ... and I can't be that for her.

I have to be the mom to my own kids with their trivial pursuits. "No, Mom, I can't come see you this weekend. We have S and T's last play, and we have a soccer game." That sounds so meaningless when she's watching her life love drain away little by little every day. And while it might sound meaningless and trivial, it's not. Those plays and soccer games are some of the most important things in our children's lives, and they need to experience them -  with their mom there. I can't put my life on hold for the years that will pass as my father shrinks.

My dirty little secret? Part of me doesn't want to deal with this. 

I adore my mother and father. I can't imagine having better parents, for I don't believe they exist. They've been married for 55 years this May 8th, and they love each other more every passing year. So in my mom's most pressing time of need, I can't bring myself to be there fully. What does that say about me? I'm not sure I want to know the answer.

Part of it - probably a big part of it - is that I'm grieving too. I'm losing (already lost?) a parent whom I love dearly, and it's hard for me to look that in the face. When I'm with them, I see my dad's confusion, his disorientation; I can't escape it. One day he simply won't recognize me, and that day probably isn't too far off.

My question is, how can I be the person that my mom needs me to be, the mom that my kids need me to be, the wife that my husband needs me to be, and the person that I need me to be?

Simple answer ... I can't. Currently, mom to my kids and wife to my husband are winning out. 

Being a mom to my mom and a person I can be proud of are losing.


  1. Wow, Camille. This is deep stuff, and I'm right in there with you, down to the mother who never had a nurturing mother. Our situations are similar in many ways. I think your parents are blessed to have a daughter who honors them with her words (in a post like this) and in her actions (doing the best you can under the circumstances). I think many members of the "sandwich generation" experience the same kind of inner conflict -- because of caring so much.

    P.S. Saw you got your book list up and running -- yea! BTW, I share your feelings about "Protecting The Gift." Should be required reading for every parent ...

  2. I thought about you a lot while I was writing this, Hannah. I wish we were in a different club.

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  4. I think about this so much, about what will happen when my parents are in decline, and hearing this story from you really hits home to me. My mother is the only daughter in her family, and I have seen how she has carried most of the weight with her own parents. I have also seen this with my mother in law and her sister, how they have nurtured their parents while their brothers took a less active role. I'm not saying this is always the case and that all men are not active participants in their parents' care. I'm only saying that the multiple responsibilities of care giving for women can be so intense between parenting their own children and caring for their own aging parents.