How my father inadvertantly taught me to be a better caregiver.

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Taking care of my dad has been a strange journey in trying to let go of the past and “doing the right thing.”  When I was in my 20’s and early 30’s, before my father was diagnosed with Alzheimers, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I needed to deal with past issues with my father before it was “too late.” Now it is too late, and I am stuck with the challenge of negotiating my dad’s care, parenting him, all the while fighting back the knee-jerk reaction that arises when “old wounds” are opened.

 

I had very good reasons NOT to address issues with my dad when he was healthy.  Basically, my sister had tried and had gotten shot down in a way that I was not willing to experience.  I have learned that my father is a stubborn, selfish man with little to no ability to self-reflect and be introspective.  Probably the very reason that I am now a therapist and make a living helping others with that challenging task.  I made a deliberate choice not to challenge him on my feelings about his selfishness and, therefore, his neglect of his children.

 

Not that I can’t empathize with my father in an abstract way.  I can examine his childhood with an alcoholic mother and philandering father who had extremely high expectations of him (that he did not live up to) and understand how he never learned to empathize and how he might shut himself off from self-responsibility.  On the other hand, I am a human who was raised by this person and the child me wants him to have put his children first and taken responsibility for his actions – at least at some point.  Not to say he wasn’t a good dad at times. He was, but there were many periods of my childhood, specifically my adolescence, when he was focusing solely on his needs while I struggled emotionally and financially.  The child in me doesn’t care about his depression, the neglect he must have experienced from his parents, etc.  I just want to have been taken care of in a way that can’t be done by a single mother with a full-time job and three kids. If there is one thing I have learned in my years as a therapist for adolescent girls- a teenage girl needs her dad.

 

So here I am in a position where I often have to sacrifice attending to my child and taking care of myself while I take care of his needs.  A sacrifice he did not always make for us.  I am glad I am introspective enough to know that this is the right thing to do and that I have to forgive my father – even without the apology.  But there are many times in this process that my dad’s self-centeredness arises, and I can’t do a thing about it.  I talk to him about his choices, I smile and soothe, I do for him what he couldn’t do for me.  Perhaps he is benefitting from what I learned from his neglect.

 

Help me find a lesson in this.

 

Natural Selection

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About a year ago, my dad’s wife left him and my siblings and I found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a sandwich.  As I mentioned before, we are part of the “sandwich generation.”  I really love a good sandwich, but the sandwich generation is a generation of people caught raising their young children and taking care of ailing, aging parents.

I have a 2-year old girl, my sister has a 4- and 6-year old, and my brother has 2-, 4-, and a 6-year old.  We are of a group of college-educated 30-somethings who chose to go on to higher education, delayed starting a family, and really enjoyed their 20’s.   The vast majority of our friends are in the same genre, and the vast majority of us are beginning to deal with aging and even dying parents.  I am just not sure this is the way it should be.

Any of you who are parents or have seen a close friend or relative become parents are aware of how really difficult parenting can be.  Being a parent is not for the faint of heart.  I believe it takes a strong constitution and an immense amount of patience to be a good parent.  I want to be a good parent.  And I know many of you know the challenges of taking care of an aging, ailing parent.  I want to be there for my dad.  But how do you succeed when you are, in effect, doing both at the same time?

My brother called me last night to share that my dad’s neighbor had called with concerns about a decline in his functioning (ie putting soup on his plate not in his bowl).  We were discussing getting the home health care in place as soon as possible all the while I can hear my daughter screaming through the monitor.  I had put her to bed about a half an hour earlier, but she is going through a stage of not wanting to sleep and instead screams her little head off.  Moms out there now how this noise pierces the heart and disrupts any ability to focus.  But, my brother needed to give me the information and make a plan to address my dad’s decline.  Sandwich time rears it’s very unattractive face!

Don’t worry, my daughter didn’t scream for long and my brother got heard (not that you were concerned about my brother).  But do you see how unnatural this is?  On a daily basis, I can’t possibly take care of my daughter (which I believe is my biological priority) and take care of my father’s health as well.  I believe the “unnaturalness” of it all is evident in how little I want to deal with the everyday stress of meeting his needs.  This is my biology saying “no, no, no!”

If we retrace life and the directions it takes us, one could say the unnatural part was my parents not making their marriage work.  Had they stayed together, my mom would be doing this all — with our support, of course.  I could also say it was unnatural for his second wife to leave a husband who has Alzheimer’s (which it is, but I won’t go there because marriage is hard, and I doubt her staying would have been beneficial to him in the long run).  Really, my choice to get an advanced degree and wait until near the END of my childbearing years is probably one of the more unnatural aspects of this scenario.  I am 36 and, when I have my next child, I will be “Advanced Maternal Age” – which is abbreviated AMA also the abbreviation of Against Medical Advice – coincidence? Yes, I know it is a coincidence but for the sake of irony….  Our bodies were not meant to have kids so late in life.

Any way you look at it, it is not natural for people IN OUR CULTURE to be raising small children and be responsible for their father’s well-being.  This is the time in life when grandparents are supposed to be making the burden of parenting a little lighter on their kids – being spoiling, pampering, intrusive grandparents!

I say OUR CULTURE because in plenty of other places in the world families stay in one home, support each other throughout life, and are prepared to care for their elderly in the home.  I feel our country, or maybe just those in my socio-economic stratum, is moving/has moved in a backwards direction.  Philisophically, I believe in women’s rights (I wear my feminism badge proudly), and I believe in self-determination and education, but are any of us looking at how our choices are effecting the long-term viability of the human race?  Okay, I am getting deep here and maybe I am taking my load of stress and turning it into an existential crisis, but I truly believe that there is a more “natural” way of doing things and that we are busy fighting this in the name of progress.

I don’t want to be the loser in the natural selection process!