So Grace has asked the big question, a question I ask myself all the time: With my parents, where does caretaking stop and enabling bad behavior begin? Am I taking care of them or just letting them not take responsibility for themselves?
It’s a very hard question, I agree.
I want them to grow and change, because growth is the essence of life, and we can learn up to our dying day. To grow we have to be aware and choose again, trying to become better.
But I also know that I can’t change them by myself. As I have said many times before, life would be so much easier if people would mature & heal on our schedule rather than on their own. If people just got it and acted in more enlightenment, we wouldn’t have to struggle as much, and by “people” I include ourselves; carrying our own lack of healing is always a burden.
How much do I get frustrated that my parents don’t heal & grow in ways that would be useful to me? How much do I have to let them feel the effects of their actions so they change them, and how much do I have to clean up the effects of those actions to keep them safe and comfortable?
I remember a moment in my relationship with my mother when I was thirteen. I hadn’t taken out the garbage and she decided to guilt me into it.
“If you don’t want to help, if you want me to suffer in filth, well, fine,” she said. “Then don’t take the garbage out.”
I felt the nasty, self-centered, passive-aggressive manipulation and said “Great! Then I won’t do it, ” and walked away.
She was furious. But one reason I was called stupid, one reason so many people found me frustrating is that I wouldn’t fall for their emotional manipulation. Christine knew how to manipulate men, but that involved men responding emotionally rather than seeing the manipulation like I did. Dara, in frustration, once called me “emotionally uncastratable” both a sign of who I knew myself to be and a mark of how she tried to manipulate.
Beyond this, I have always called my mother on her stuff.
We had a meal of take-out Chinese on Mother’s Day, and my mother had made a big apple crisp for dessert.
After too much food, we only had room for small portions.
“You don’t like it,” my mother whined. “You didn’t take seconds.”
I switched to my opera announcer voice, hushed and intense.
“And now,” I said, “in honor of Mother’s Day, she will perform a series of guilt trips taught to her by her own mother.”
My sister tried not to giggle.
My mother looked both upset and amused. But I knew amused would win out. That’s my up close strategy; make you laugh when I slip the knife in to slice between truth and rationalization, between core and manipulation, revealing the funny side of humans.
I still do this, all the time. I call people on their behavior, including my parents. I know that a crucial thing I do here is to stop the introversion cycle that is so typical with seniors. When alone, they follow the same ground, run the same patterns, let their world shrink. They need someone outside to keep them connected, about social trends and new horizons, and I do that, which keeps my parents young.
My father is the third of five siblings and all the rest are dead now, the last more than ten years ago. My mother talks to two of the three widows who continue on. It’s his determination that kleeps him going, and maybe his family.
The place where push comes to shove on this issue, though, is with me.
My mother knows it. “I worry that we are taking your life from you.”
But that doesn’t mean she can change who she is, any more than my father can change who he is.
I don’t push for myself. I have said that it is hard because I can’t both be responsible for breaking the wall and stopping to clean up the mess, one for me, one for them.
My sister rankles every time I mention this summer when I needed her help to get my parents through it while I broke the wall. She rankles because she knows she failed me, knows that other assignments took priority even as I has a moment where I could dream of something joyous for myself. The problem is that my joy required real out, and that means someone had to keep the seniors stabilized.
Do I not take enough for myself, to build a life? Probably.
Do I take my role of caretaker seriously? Absolutely. That’s why, when my sister threatened to call the authorities and tell them I was a danger to my parents to get me removed from the house, I was so upset. She may have wanted to protect both of us, but she offered no other plan, just a screaming pain.
If I can’t demand that my parents heal & grow on my schedule, but can’t just allow them to be insulated from the effects of their own actions — enabling them — how do I make that balance?
I was away for a week last September, down at Southern Comfort Conference. Did they ever get how much I do, how much I am taken for granted, and how much of a struggle it is for me?
I know the theme of “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?” and have used it successfully in the past.
But breaking through these two people who are just getting “more so” as they age? These two people who resist acknowledging how they become more helpless as they get closer to death? These two people who cling to their independence even as their faculties diminish?
I ride in the car when my father drives, and every time it is a frustrating and terrifying experience. He can’t listen, misses cues, changes speed, all that. I have shared many incidents of how he gets to the edge, and my worries that someday he will go beyond it.
But am I the one who wants to take his keys? To take his mobility?
And if I do, is there any chance that they will go somewhere without me? Am I even more tied to them?
There aren’t any perfect choices, as any parent will be happy to tell you. Relationships, especially when people are changing faster than they can adapt, are very, very hard.
But everyday I walk the line, trying to both be there and let them be there.
And yes, it’s killing me.