As I have written over the years, I believe that “Motherhood is not a job, it is a relationship.” I still think this is the most useful way to conceptualize motherhood, but I understand that motherhood is a big, emotionally laden idea that is not easily contained in one simple sentence. Motherhood is culture and gender. It is an essential role that is both idealized, and dismissed. Being a mother is a heck of a lot of work, yet motherhood does not typically provide many of the rewards or recognition that a paid job does.
Some cultures and societies may treat motherhood as a career, but typically in the United States we do not do that. I am more comfortable thinking of motherhood as a “calling” rather than a “career.” And I would hope that parenting is a calling for men, too–a calling, a role, a relationship that is incredibly meaningful and intense, but one that is not all-consuming. We can be parents and take on other roles and identities as well.
It is time to untangle the knot of motherhood, by separating motherhood, the relationship, from caregiving, the work. Now in real life that is hard to do, but a separate understanding of family relationships and caregiving work may help us in the future. Not all of us have children, but all of us have parents, and I truly believe that the aging of the Baby Boomers will force us to confront the full spectrum of the realities of caregiving.
I have been there. My mother was there in her late 60’s, in the thick middle of the generational sandwich herself, as the person in charge of overseeing her 92-year old father’s medical care, legal needs, and family business; while also babysitting her 10-year old granddaughter on a regular basis.
Six months after my grandfather father died, my mother got sick, and I became her caregiver as she went into hospice care.
I am still a caregiving daughter for my father. And my husband is a caregiving son for his mother. Even if the elders don’t live in your home, looking after their affairs (accounting and taxes, home maintenance or downsizing), managing medical care, appointments, and transportation; and maintaining a relationship with your elder is a major time commitment.
Elder care is an inevitable part of life and I try not to begrudge it, though I will say that while caregiving can be an honor, it can also be a heavy burden. With elders, you experience the work of caregiving in a setting that is more scary and sad than the hopefulness of raising a baby. It takes the romance away from caregiving. And, while many people assume that mothers should drop everything to care for their kids, I ask you to turn that assumption on its head: expecting working adults to drop everything to provide unpaid family caregiving for their parents is totally unrealistic and would be undesirable–a recipe for financial crisis as well as emotional and physical burnout.
What can we learn from looking at caregiving through the lens of elder care? Caregiving is real, essential work with an economic value. Yet that work is often invisible and uncounted. Ideally people would have a healthy support system with many strands. Unfortunately, typically the work falls disproportionately on women, daughters.
According to Thomas Day, the director of the National Care Planning Council,
Informal caregivers are family, friends, neighbors or church members who provide unpaid care out of love, respect, obligation or friendship to a disabled person. These people far outnumber formal caregivers and without them, this country would have a difficult time formally funding the caregiving needs of a growing number of disabled recipients.
Depending on the definition of caregiving, estimates of the number of informal caregivers range from 20 million to 50 million people. This could represent about 20% of the total population providing part-time or full-time care. The typical caregiver is a daughter, age 46, with a full-time job, providing an average of 18 hours per week to one or more of her parents.
Among adults aged 20 to 75, providing informal care to a family or friend of any age, 38% care for aging parents and 11% care for their spouse. About two-thirds of those caregivers for people over age 50 are employed full-time or part-time and two-thirds of those–about 45% of working caregivers–report having to rearrange their work schedule, decrease their hours or take an unpaid leave in order to meet their caregiving responsibilities.
A recent study estimates these people lose about $660,000 in wage wealth over their lifetime because of work sacrifices. And estimates of productivity losses to businesses because of time off for caregiving range from $11 billion to $29 billion yearly. The average amount of time informal caregivers provide assistance is 4.5 years but 20% will provide care for 5 years or longer.
Seventy-six million Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age. We have an elder care crisis looming over our heads that will require us to grapple with the economic work of caregiving as well as the intangible value of love and relationships. Families provide love and caregiving–but there is no reason that we have to “go it alone” when it comes to caregiving. What this country needs to do is wake up and make that invisible work visible. Instead of talking about the “productivity losses” of caregiving, why not count informal caregiving as an “economic contribution,” which is surely is? In our current system, where informal caregiving is treated as little more than missed hours from paid work, caregiving activity is an economic loss to the people providing unpaid care.
We need to find common ground in our discussions about family, and craft policies that honor both the fact that most parents have to work outside the home to support a family, and also that the “informal” care provided by family members (be they parents or children) is an essential service that provides genuine economic value.
Looking at caregiving from the perspective of adult children caring for elders takes the most pernicious aspects of “choice” out of the discussion–I believe we focus too much on the individual choice to have children in a way that is bad for public policy. We leave families out to dry with little support by saying “You chose to have kids, so deal with it” when raising the next generation is in fact essential for society as a whole. Women from around the world are aghast that American women accept the status quo of not even having paid maternity leave. Our American exceptionalism can be wonderfully optimistic, but it can blind us to the fact that we are getting an incredibly raw deal when it comes to family caregiving policies. Worldwide, 178 countries offer paid maternity leave, with the few exceptions being countries including Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. Over 50 Western countries also provide paid leave for fathers.
No one “chose” to have a parent, and looking at caregiving through that lens exposes some of the absurdities of our current approaches to social policy. We each have the family we were dealt, and for the most part we are all working hard to do the best we can.
There is so much common ground here for the interests of mothers, fathers, and adult children–if you are a parent or have a parent–that is just about all of us! Let’s not let ourselves get caught up in Twitter wars and divisions that separate us and keep us fighting with each other. We need to come together to fight on behalf of sane and compassionate public policy that supports all families.
This whole fall, and especially since Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get through our first holidays without my Mom. I am posting a picture of us together at my Mojo Mom book launch in April 2009 to cheer myself up a little bit. I was really proud to have her be able to attend my author talk. She often babysat my daughter while I did my book talks, so it was really special to have her come to an event. This is one of my favorite pictures of us together:
To get through Thanksgiving I focused on being thankful for the family who were able to be with us, while remembering those whom we’ve lost. But what I am learning about grief is that it does not follow a timeline that is like most other things in society. We’re so used to experiencing events, or going through seasons, then moving on, lightning-quick. These days, the Christmas aisle is fully set up the day after Halloween, if not before! It has long been a pet peeve of mine that grinding consumerism creates a nearly unbroken cycle of spending and candy. (Remember when candy was an actual holiday treat?) But this year my emotional state is what is dominating my landscape, as I realize that grief will be a long process that needs to be honored and not rushed. I am trying to create a meaningful holiday without forcing myself to feel or act “jolly.” One part of that is conserving my energy and acknowledging that I already have a lot on my plate. The second part is figuring out what my family really does want to do to celebrate Christmas, and I to be honest I have not made a lot of progress on that one yet.
Since I need guidance more than I am able to create it this season, I wanted to share the following advice from Project Compassion a non-profit organization in based in Chapel Hill, NC, that creates community and provides innovative support for people living with serious illness, caregiving, end of life and grief. This piece is reprinted with their permission:
Hope for the Holidays: Living with Grief
The holidays are a traditionally seen as a time of joy and laughter, sparkle and glitter, sharing and gift-giving. But for people who are grieving, the holidays may be a time of mixed emotions, feelings of being overwhelmed with multiple demands, and a renewed reminder of losses. As the holidays approach, consider about how you take care of yourself during this time.
Helpful Hints for the Holidays
1. Acknowledge the Energy Needed for Grief
Adjustment to the death or dying of someone close to you does not simply come with time. The work of grief demands that you deal with all the feelings that loss engenders. This work takes psychic and physical energy that can leave you unable to deal with the extra demands of the holiday season.
2. Allow Yourself To Be Human
Avoid perfectionist expectations during the holidays. Let some things slide. If you really want to do all the cooking and baking, let the dusting go. Enlist the aid of others “in the holiday spirit of sharing.” You do not have to do it all yourself this time.
3. Plan Ahead
Sit down with your family and friends ahead of time to discuss and decide those activities, experiences, and people that make the holidays special for you. Decide to do a few special things with a few special people, not everything with everybody.
4. Set Limits
Tell your family, friends, and yourself now- and continue to remind them- that you are on a stress reduction diet this holiday season. You will not be over-doing, over-shopping, over-cooking, over-complying or over-worrying this year. Put a sign on your bathroom mirror or refrigerator to remind yourself or others.
5. Change Shoulds To Wants
Be aware of your own statements to yourself. Are you saying “I should do this or that”? Decide which of your “shoulds” you really want to do and make those your priorities. Remember: You should not “should” yourself. There are enough other people doing that already.
6. Strive For A Balanced Lifestyle
With all the parties and demands of the holidays, it is difficult for anyone to get enough rest and exercise. It is easy to overindulge. Set exercise, relaxation and self-care as a priority
7. Tell Others Clearly What You Want And Need For The Holidays
Do not be shy or embarrassed to let others know what you want from them in terms of emotional support, help, or sharing. Unknown expectations generally go unfulfilled and lead to disappointment and bad feelings.
8. Honor The Old/Create The New
This holiday time may not be like previous ones. But what will it e like? Realistically, this may be the last holiday with your ill family member. How can you make it the best?
If this is the first holiday time without your family member, include your deceased loved one to the extent that you can; the memory of him or her will be with you this holiday season no matter what you do. Consider giving gifts in acknowledgement of the person you are remembering. Consider giving love to others in honor of the love you have received. Only you can put the joy into the holidays.
9. Be Generous To Yourself
The holidays are a time of real and symbolic gift-giving. What are you giving yourself this season? When the new year rolls in, what will be your answer to the question, “What supportive and caring things did I do for myself this holiday season?”
10. Celebrate Life
It seems impossible for someone in grief to find joy and peace at any time, but especially during the season for joy and peace. This is your challenge. Life is worth living only to the extent that we make it so. Survivorship means more than merely surviving, it means fully living. Search for the living path for you and start now!
If you are grieving this holiday, I wish you solace and peace, and please know that you are not alone.
I have thought a lot about how to tell you that my life has gone through major upheavals this year, putting me at a true crossroads, professionally, personally, and spiritually. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I thought about how this post will be necessarily imperfect, and about how I both wanted to write it and desperately did not want to write it. But you deserve an update, so it is time to let you know what has been going on with me.
My life started to change last spring when my father got sick and I was in the middle of a caregiving crisis with him. As the only child of divorced parents, a lot of responsibility fell on my shoulders. At that point I had just launched the new book Courageous Parents, Confident Kids–I literally sent in the book to publish on the afternoon of March 26, and that evening he showed signs of being ill. That crisis snowballed through the spring and early summer, and I slowed down the blog to try to take a little bit of time off to catch my breath, hoping that things would get back to normal in the fall.
Which was not to be. Because as hard as my Dad’s crisis was, it turned out I hadn’t seen anything yet. When I finally got a very brief breather in late July after downsizing his house and moving Dad, I went on a much anticipated two-week vacation with my Mom’s side of the family. We had a wonderful ten days together to start out–most of the time it was just me, my Mom, and her three sisters and their husbands, as the larger crowd hadn’t arrived yet, including my husband and daughter. Then just as the whole crowd arrived and “Family Week” got underway, my Mom got very ill, very suddenly. She walked three miles in the woods one day and was in the emergency room the next. We thought she had experienced a stroke, but it turned out that she had brain tumors that had seemingly materialized out of the blue. She had coexisted with cancer for many years with successful treatments and close monitoring, but now new aggressive metastases had developed. What was really surprising was that she could have had this crisis develop to such a serious point with few if any symptoms. In a way I think that points to her strength and resilience.
So the next seven weeks turned into a journey that I hope I will never forget, but I you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t share it in detail here. In brief, after several days in the ICU, where she stabilized really well, we were able to travel back home to North Carolina, and care for her at our home for three weeks. We tried the best treatments available at UNC, but then ultimately had to accept the reality that this time, there would be no cure. Mom went on hospice care which allowed her to have a peaceful and pain-free final month, and she died her own home at the end of September, after time surrounded by family.
The past two months have been surreal and so painful. Over the years I had grappled with Mom’s illnesses. Even though she was an incredible trouper and bounced back many times from adversity, we had enough medical challenges to make me think about her vulnerability. The best way I can describe how I felt about her is that we were so close that it felt like her very existence was a precondition for my happiness. We spent a lot of time together, living in the same town for the past 10 years. So I talked to her and saw her almost every day. Even if I didn’t see her on a given day, I knew she was nearby. Our lives were interwoven together in ways that I was aware of but that were almost impossible to totally appreciate until she was gone–though I did my best to remember not to ever take her for granted. She was Mojo Grannie and she helped me be Mojo Mom, as I acknowledged back in 2005 when I wrote “Mojo Grannie is the glue that holds everything together.” I knew that her support was part of what made my career possible, reaching out to connect with other mothers, even when my daughter was very young.
Now it almost feels like I am starting a new life–not one that I am ready to embrace yet. It still feels wrong to go on with out her. But I can see rays of light and I know there is a path forward even if I can only see two feet ahead of me right now. I fully appreciate that I am incredibly fortunate to have had 42 years of excellent mothering. I still needed my Mom, a lot, but I at the end I was able to tell her in all honesty that she had taught us what we needed to know to keep going. And I have to remind myself that I will never be a motherless daughter because of her care and the deep bond we have shared.
But professionally as well as personally, I really am at a crossroads. I see motherhood differently now that my daughter is growing up into the middle school years. That feels different in ways that I will write about more another time. The short answer is that my identity is not based on being a mother in the way that it once was. People have always told me that middle schoolers still need their parents as much as younger kids, sometimes even more so, but it does feel like a different kind of “needing” as tweens really start to develop their own lives.
The good news is, I have adjusted to the ways that motherhood is evolving in my life, and I have explored different aspects of being Amy, including the important facet of being Mojo Mom.
I stand my the advice I have given as Mojo Mom, and I and have even come to appreciate some of it even more, especially the idea that you have to take care of yourself and do whatever it takes to make some time for your own interests, whether that is a paid career or other pursuits. In fact I’d say you have to build your priorities from the ground up around that. Not because it’s more important than your children, but because you’ll most likely have to fight to keep that time and space. Not necessarily fight against the people in your life, but fight other demands from taking over every available moment–because when “something has to give,” it’s all too often coming out of the time of a caregiving woman’s own best-laid plans. If you don’t have groundwork and a support network in place before a crisis hits, you can really go over the edge into deep trouble. I realize that I am particularly fortunate to be a self-employed author because I was able to take time off and come back. Many jobs would not have been as forgiving, which would have deepened the crisis–and also calls out for sane family-leave policies that support all family caregivers.
My experience has shown me that being a new mother is very challenging, but life can throw curveballs that are harder than being a new Mom. I say that with all due respect because I know the early weeks and months are HARD and I don’t mean to minimize that. But it should get more manageable over time. You need to make it a priority to make it manageable, because there is no guarantee that other crises won’t come down the road to pile on top of what you are already juggling.
I wish I could say that more eloquently, and maybe I will over time. But for now that’s the unfiltered truth, and my new starting point.
Thank you for your support, for caring, for commenting and gently prodding me to keep blogging! It helps more than you can know. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Pretty soon I hope to be able to share some news with you about what happens next.
For the past month, most of the time I have felt like I am living in an alternate universe, almost like I am living someone else’s life. After a spring season of “living in my head” working hard leading up to the release of Courageous Parents, Confident Kids, “real life” got its turn at bat in a major way. In the last month I have relearned the fact that life is what happens in the hospital waiting room, the lawyer’s office, on cleaning day and moving day. I’ve gotten my head out of the blogosphere, shown up in person, and jumped in to do what needed to be done.
My Dad got sick rather unexpectedly on June 4, left his home in an ambulance, and will not go back to that house. The good news is that he made it through his health crisis and is doing much better. But it’s been a long road for all of us since then. While he was recuperating, I had to downsize his house for him–finally making decisions about many items that had been swept up in previous moves–pack, and move to a new apartment. We have made a lot of progress. Only now can I see the fresh new page turned in our lives well enough to write about it.
I don’t want to go into a long lecture about family caregiving but I will say that what I wrote about in the newest edition of Mojo Mom, and the points I make in my Top 10 Courage Boosters article have come true for me. For example: If your parents or in-laws become ill or financially vulnerable, you may end up with the responsibility of becoming their primary caregiver unless other advance arrangements are made. (Mojo Mom, p. 191) It is a real challenge to play catch-up when the whole system breaks down unexpectedly.
My parents have been divorced from each other for over 25 years, and I am the only child, so when a caregiving crisis hit, it fell pretty hard on me. Dad remarried but has been single for the past three years. But it’s strange how the echoes of a quarter century ago come back in what I think of as “Divorce, the Sequel.” Luckily, I have had incredible family support, including my Mom who is the unsung hero, walking my dog and driving my daughter around as needed, so that I could be available for Dad. My husband has been truly empathetic as well, rolling up his sleeves at home and also lending a sympathetic ear as I talk about how I have had to jettison my own work for a month, feel like I am neglecting him and our daughter, and feel frustrated that after all the work I have done, I still have a huge pile of undone tasks sitting in front of me. He has told me “you are doing a great job,” which I heartily appreciate, but I suspect part of what is hard about all this is that it is nearly impossible to do a “great job” in this situation.
The reality of it all can be harsh. A sore throat turned into ten days of bronchitis when I had to go clean out a dusty house on a deadline rather than rest in bed sick. I’ve driven over 2000 miles since June 4, often driving 120 miles a day in a loop that encompasses day camp, Dad’s old house, and back. I am a “work at home” Mom who has rarely been at home or working (on my own projects) for a month. I feel like a “stay at home daughter,” something that puts caregiving into a new light. I have been arguing for years against writers like Linda Hirshman and Leslie Bennetts who write harsh books aimed at mothers such as Get to Work…and Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late. Those books still make my blood boil because I believe they undervalue caregiving, but from my new perspective I can see that we need to craft a new caregiving system that allows people (ahem, daughters in particular) to maintain their jobs even when a family member needs more care. I don’t want to launch into a policy discussion today, but I will plant a bookmark for later. For one thing, I have learned is that a trend that hits my parents, born in the early 1940’s, hits the Baby Boomers in earnest a few years later. And we know the Boomers have not saved enough money to make this all better by waving a magic wand containing the resources needed to build a support system in their elder years.
For now, I am extremely grateful that my Dad is doing well. I am trying to focus on his strengths and how lucky we are that we are getting through this. I am equally grateful for the help my wonderful Aunt, Mom and husband have contributed.
All along I’ve been bemoaning my status as an only child during a family crisis, saying “I need at least three sisters to help me dig out of this.” And while I can’t conjure up sisters, I have found that professional organizers are angels who will show up to pull you out of a quagmire in your hour of need. It took over 80 woman•hours to downsize, pack and move Dad’s house. I could not have done that on my own–not only would it have taken much longer, it would have been an impossible task, as the three organizers I worked with made it go more quickly and smoothly, and eased the emotional burden and stress on me. For example, they went through every single scrap of paper in the house, organized them and filed them, showing me only the items they had questions about. Paperwork is my own personal weakness, so that task alone would have left me huddled in a corner crying after one day, but Deb Zechini stuck it out patiently for over three days!
So huge thanks go out to Marsha Stayer, Stefanie Watkins, and Debbie Zechini who were there for me. Talk about showing up, rolling up their sleeves, and jumping in–they did it. Marsha had a great knack for saying “We’re almost there” and “This is the fun part,” just when I felt like I was completely out of gas.
If you ever need help, invest in this vital service! It is well worth it! Marsha, Stefanie and Debbie were my “sisters in arms” working together as a team just when I needed help the most. I guess that’s how we get through any crisis. Whether it’s friends, family or experts, you need to find those people who will lock arms with you, dive in, and stick it out until you figure out where you need to go next, and how to get there.
As for the rest of my month, July? Still a bit of chaos, but I am trying not to lose faith or collapse from exhaustion just as things are looking up. I have one professional event that I am looking forward to, and then I will take off a couple of weeks at the end of the month for the long-awaited recharge I have promised myself and my family.
It is strange how life deals you just as much as you can handle: way back on Friday March 26th, I hit “publish” on Courageous Parents, Confident Kids. That night I got together with my Dad at a family event, and realized he wasn’t his usual self, which started the ball rolling on the health concerns that led up to June 4th. So I have not had a real mental rest in a long time. People have been telling me “be sure to take care of yourself,” yet for a while that has not seemed feasible. But as I wrote in my Top 10 Courage Boosters:
When it comes to self care, remember that as a parent, you are a first responder to many urgent situations. You need to keep your batteries charged because you could face a new challenge at any time. And, taking care of yourself will make you a better parent. And, most of all, you deserve it! (I have found that many Moms need at least 3 reasons to make self care a priority!)
Message to self, received, loud and clear.
I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone between blog posts and that doesn’t feel good! But this month I have been gobsmacked by family responsibilities. And it’s not motherhood! It’s being a caregiving daughter for my parents. I am living out one of the things I have been saying to Moms for years now: you need to find a way to make caregiving sustainable, so that it does not burn you out until you are just an empty shell. Because eldercare can be even more challenging at times that having a baby. It comes out of the blue, it’s more of a crisis and less joyful, it can be very sad, it’s a complicated maze of health care, logistics, and finances.
Right now I am trying to remember to be THANKFUL for all that is going well, and to be honest, I feel overwhelmed by what’s not going well, and all the work ahead of me. I am spending the next two weeks downsizing my father’s house in preparation for his next move. This involves catching up on tasks and decisions that should have been taken care of three to forty years ago. So it’s daunting, and it’s on my plate. But at least we still have a chance to catch up now and help my Dad move forward in a better place.
I have to go into family mode but I have already found that even though I have less time to work right now, it is important to keep my writing and professional career going in any way I can. On the one hand I have to be realistic about the fact that until we get Dad moved and settled in, I will have little time and energy for anything else. But on the other hand I have realized that totally squelching the creative part of my life would just make things a lot more depressing. So let’s just say I am in the hive right now, so even if you don’t see me or hear from me as much this summer, I am working behind the scenes to recharge, redirect and relaunch my mojo as soon as I can. You should see the results by the time school starts, and I’ll keep writing as much as I can this summer.
Know that when I write about these issues, it is not an academic exercise, it’s my life, too.
I am really glad we got the new book launched successfully, because I have to tell you I am having a tough month. Right now I am experiencing working-Mom guilt, now that I am getting back to the rest of my life and realizing how unavailable I had been as I worked furiously to get ready for publication, in combination with intense caregiver Mom/Daughter responsibilities. We have a real quadruple-decker sandwich going on in my family, spanning from my 10 year old to her 91 year old great-grandmother. It just so happens that everyone is facing a big challenge right now of one kind or another, and thankfully we can support each other, taking turns driving one another to doctor’s appointments and helping out in other ways. So today I check on my Dad who is anticipating an overnight stay in the hospital, tomorrow I bring him home, and if the timing works out (which it probably won’t) I’ll accompany my Mom to a totally separate doctor’s appointment, 40 miles in the other direction. In the meantime my mother is taking care of my daughter and dog as needed so that I can look in on my Dad. I am doing okay but I probably have an ulcer so that needs to get healed, and I am going in for the definitive diagnosis next week, and my Mom will accompany me, because someone else has to drive me and take me home.
My husband is usually an active partner in all this, but due to unlucky timing he’s tied up with unavoidable work obligations all week.
My Aunt has been a godsend as she and my Dad were able to visit their mother together last week, a major trip that would have been much tougher to do alone. She’s also helping with driving this week.
Even though we have a round robin of support, I still feel a crushing amount of pressure right now. When I look at the picture of the big sandwich, I feel like a soggy old piece of cheese stuck right in the middle. I’ve been holding up okay but it’s reached the point where my mojo has been run down to almost zilch. So I am taking this week off from podcasting, and I may not blog for a few days. I hate taking off from writing because that generally makes me feel worse, not better, but this week something has got to give.
If I pull back the lens to the larger view, I’ll say the one interesting thing about my current situation is that much of the stress is unrelated to having a child. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: caregiving is not always a choice. My daughterly responsibilities are equally intense as my mothering right now. As the only child of divorced parents, a lot falls on me as I care for four people (plus myself) and juggle three households to some extent! I am working on getting a support team in place to bring in extra minds and hands to tackle a lot of the work that needs to be done, which feels good. And I am working on my own support, which is going okay, but I have reached the point of burnout where I am not even sure what would make me feel better right now. Still trying to figure that one out.