Two years ago my mother passed away; I had been her primary caregiver for over seven years.
Like all adult children caring for their aging parents, I saw a side of my mom I had never seen as a child.
As a young person, I looked up to her. I thought she was beautiful and attempted to imitate her style. In high school, when everyone was wearing bikinis at the pool, I was wearing a one-piece black bathing suit that looked really classy (very Grace Kelly).
We shopped, people-watched, and had deep talks together. My friends loved her, and she loved them. Chocolate chip cookies were her specialty and we ate them until we popped.
Gourmet Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
(After all, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down :-))
You will need: butter, brown sugar, white sugar, real vanilla extract, 1 egg, kosher salt, baking soda, flour, milk chocolate chips.
3/4 cup cold butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
Mix just until blended. You’ll need a heavy duty mixer like a Kitchen Aid to handle the cold butter.
Add: 1 egg and 1tsp real vanilla extract. Mix just until it looks slimy.
Add: 1 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, and 2 cups flour. Mix until incorporated. If you over-mix, the cookies will spread out and get too thin.
Add a 12 oz bag (2 cups) of your favorite milk chocolate chips. I like Nestles, Ghiridelli, or Hershey’s mini kisses. Blend just until incorporated.
Scoop with a mini ice cream scooper and place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. Cool on a paper towel lined counter.
They smell great
My mother took the prize for meeting me in my world. She listened to my music and showed an interest in the things that were important to me. I remember the fun of going to a fortuneteller together, but most of all, through her example, I learned to love people and diversity, in that order. The time we spent together was precious and I missed her terribly when I went away to college.
Three generations. From left to right: Me, Grandma, Mom, my sister Debbie and Buffy.
As an adult, I saw my mother through very different eyes.
The woman who was so wonderful when I was a child, became very difficult to deal with when I took over her care after my father’s death.
Before Mom became my responsibility, she suffered multiple mini strokes, which led to major brain surgery and significant personality changes. Negative character traits that were barely visible in my younger years became exaggerated.
Her impulse control was practically non-existent. She said hurtful things that came to her mind, which previously she would have kept to herself, and she was paranoid about my father coming back from the dead to chastise her.
I think it might have been easier to handle had I been with her through all of her changes, but after I married and moved away, our relationship was reduced to telephone calls, and a one weeklong visit each year. After my father’s diagnosis of cancer they moved to Salt Lake City, so that I could help.
My dad made cryptic attempts to warn me about what was coming, but to his credit, because he loved her, he never exposed her shortcomings. I wish he ‘d been less cryptic and more direct, because I truly fell into being my mother’s caregiver with a blindfold on.
Up until that time I believed my mother believed in me, to which I attribute much of my success in life.
That changed when she began to vilify me, the same way she did my father and most other perceived authority figures throughout her life.
As I struggled to raise my own family, work full time, and manage a new diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, I did my best to care for her. I cut back my job from full time to part time, losing much needed income in an attempt to find balance.
I took her to all of her doctor appointments, managed her medications, provided her meals, shopped for her, visited with her and took her to get her hair done. Basically I took care of her needs, as I would have for any of my children that I loved so dearly.
She would thank me to my face and tell me how wonderful I was, but then tell our mutual friends her complaints, which of course would get back to me. I wasn’t spending enough time with her, I wasn’t giving her dessert, I had to work too much…
Every story had a shred of truth, which hooked me into a waterfall of guilt and shame.
The “people watching” we shared in my youth, which served to unite us, began to tear us apart when I became the central figure of her gossip. All of a sudden I was on the outside and we both became victims of each others hurt and fear.
She told me my father never wanted me, and was especially disappointed I wasn’t a boy. She told me he never approved of my marrying my husband and things associated with that that are still too painful for me to write. She told me she and my father had a pact to kill themselves (she had a gun and knew how to use it), should they ever become so ill they would have to move in with my sister or me.
My mother opened up a Pandora’s box of information that was never intended for my ears. To this day I don’t know if those things were true, if they were designed and said to hurt me, or if in her confused state she was incapable of knowing the truth.
She abused medications, sabotaged several much needed vacations, and went on hunger strikes resulting in anorexia.
It was more than I could handle. I couldn’t process:
1. The mother I loved, aging rapidly and leaving me
2. The new information she was feeding me that challenged my core beliefs, which were the bedrock of my identity
3. The shock of her betrayal of me to my friends
4. Her drug abuse
5. Her sheer willfulness resulting in life threatening anorexia, which I interpreted as the most profound protest of my inadequate care
6. My profession of listening all day to people who were hurting
7. Everything that comes with multiple sclerosis, including medication that weekly gave me flu-like symptoms, headaches, weakness, and fatigue
8. The responsibilities of being a wife, a mother, and a homemaker
And so I began to disengage, and with disengagement, my mind competed with feelings of guilt, shame, and self-preservation.
I had to recognize what I had power over and what I didn’t. I had to accept I wasn’t capable of doing “it all.”
- I couldn’t stop the clock for my mother.
- I couldn’t return her to her youth.
- I couldn’t take away her pain.
- I couldn’t control the stories she told our friends.
- I couldn’t control our friend’s reactions.
- I couldn’t make her eat.
- I couldn’t stop her anger.
- I couldn’t mend her stroke-damaged brain and show her that her fears were irrational.
- I couldn’t erase the events in her life that caused her pain.
- I couldn’t convince her I wasn’t like all of the people in her life who had hurt her.
- I couldn’t trust her to take her medications responsibly or manage her finances.
- I couldn’t make her the mother of my youth.
- I couldn’t allow her to be the all-powerful queen who had historically determined my self-worth.
- I could be kind.
- I could be understanding.
- I could be firm.
- I could manage her finances and protect her from scam artists.
- I could make sure her physical needs were met.
- I could get her counseling if she wanted it…she didn’t.
- I could ask my son to visit her and take her meals.
- I could choose to never be alone with her, because that’s when she was the meanest.
- I could take her to her appointments.
- I could keep her medications at my house and only give her one day’s worth at a time.
- I could listen to her.
- I could love her.
Another 3 Generations. From left to right: My daughter Annie, Me, Mom, my daughter Cara, and my daughter Heather
I’d like to say it was easier once I sorted these things out, but it wasn’t. Being triggered emotionally by her relentless manipulations constantly challenged what I knew rationally. We were both trying to survive, each with our own handicaps.
For the most part, I’m not proud of the time I spent caring for my mother. As in parenting my own children, I discovered unflattering parts of myself I hadn’t been aware of, and was often incapable of wrestling those aspects of myself to the ground. Many times I wanted to give up, but I never did. I was given a test and I performed to the best of my ability.
My mother had been given a test also, and I am confident she also performed to the best of her ability.
In the end I realize I was naïve in my assumptions about caregiving, much the same as we often are about marriage and parenting. I was in possession of some powerful personal myths, which created catastrophic conflict with my reality.
My Caregiving Myths
- There is something wrong with me if I don’t welcome caregiving the parents who gave me life.
- I should be willing to give up everything, including: financial security, exercise, sleep, time with my own family, going to the doctor for myself, friends, and hobbies.
- The same childhood rule that I shouldn’t say “no” to my parents, still applies when I’m an adult.
- I must protect my parents from all discomfort, both physical and mental.
- Aging parents want what’s best for their children, even when they aren’t capable of constructing reality.
- Energy will appear when I’m doing the “right” thing.
- I will have time to repair my own body when my caregiving duties are over.
- If I were a better person I would be able to do it all.
- I am a terrible person for seeing my mother’s flaws.
- Caregiving should be delightful for both of us. We should both be grateful for the experience.
- Duty should feel good.
Caregiving, like parenting, does not come with a manual. It’s a developmental stage of life that deserves much more study and commentary. I’d love to hear from you on the subject. Do you have any caregiver myths?
What I Wish I Would’ve Known or in Other Words…What I Learned
- Caregiving is rarely convenient, the inconvenience of which naturally creates conflicting emotions… all of which are normal.
- Boundaries are essential in caregiving. I can’t care for others well if I’m not taking care of myself.
- Owning and honoring my adult identity is a developmental task that takes its turn getting strengthened and weakened when caregiving a parent.
- It is mindless to slip into a childlike state of mind, expecting my mother to be the mother of my childhood. It blurs reality and makes it impossible to navigate caregiving.
- I am not responsible for creating bliss for my parents. Nobody gets bliss. We all are in charge of our own happiness and we will all experience discomfort, emotionally and physically.
- When people are struggling with their most basic primitive needs, altruism is not an option.
- Energy comes from proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
- Today is always the time to take care of my body. Neglect can be irreversible.
- Nobody can “do it all.” Nobody. Nobody.
- The antidote for doing “it all,” is to define what “it all” is. Sometimes “it all” is nothing more than a powerful unidentifiable feeling.
- It is important to determine what is realistic and what isn’t; then prioritize and identify what is most important.
- It is a mind contortion to see a parent behaving the way they taught you not to act.
- It isn’t blasphemy to see parents as something different than The Great and Powerful Oz.
- Caregiving is hard for both the caregiver and the cared for.
- Duty means doing something because it is the right thing to do. It definitely doesn’t have to feel good. Just ask Dwight Eisenhower.
I did my best. If I was given a do-over with the knowledge I have now, I would like to say I would do some things differently, but I don’t think I would. I just would have liked my heart, my mind, and my actions to be on the same page.
What has your experience been? I think it’s time for a Caregiver’s Manifesto. Write to me and tell me what you would like to see on such a document, should it exist?
That’s all for this week. Until next time, may you find your cup half full 🙂
Barbara (The Blog Whisperer)