On Twitter yesterday, I got into a discussion about the difficulty inherent in caring for a parent who hurt you as a child. See - we do occasionally talk about more than Reese’s peanut butter cups over there. I started thinking about the last couple years of my mother’s life and the fact that my sister and supported her despite the lingering anger and resentment from our own childhoods. I thought about our trip to New York together in 2007 and remembered that I had reflected on this very issue in my journal as I flew back to Minneapolis. So this morning, I dug it out and found the entry:
There were moments when I found it difficult to straddle the past and present with mom, to reconcile the hard woman she was in my childhood with the fragile, elderly woman she has become. Sometimes, I resented her slowness..her complaints…her neediness. I am forgiving myself for these conflicted feelings because it is all so complex. I am, after all, a woman who was raised by a woman who despised frailty and weakness. Though I have insight and struggle to transcend these messages from my childhood, I don’t always succeed.
In the last two years of my mother’s life, she had a series of health crises that left her increasingly frail. My role was usually to manage details and suggest courses of action. It’s what I do in my job so it came easy to me. I would talk to the doctors and make recommendations. I was the appointed decision-maker at first and my sister took over that role for the last year and a half. It was also my job to talk to mom about the hard realities of her situation, to tell her the things that everyone was afraid to tell her. I figured that it was the least I could do. She would get mad at me and leave my sister alone which seemed fair since sis had day to day contact with her and didn’t need the trouble. I also listened…a lot. We spoke weekly and she would complain about her health, her life and her general unhappiness. My sister did the hands on care. She ran errands and was the go to gal for late night health problems – I’ll spare you the details. Mom was always angry/disappointed/hurt by one of us and she tried to pit us against each other on a regular basis. We had a running joke about who was Daughter #1 at any given moment. I would call sis and say, “I just talked to mom and she’s mad at me so you’re Daughter #1 today. Enjoy it while it lasts.” The next day, she’d call me and say the same thing. Despite our best efforts, nothing we did was ever enough and she took every opportunity to remind us of that.
It is never easy to nurture and support someone who was never able to do that for you. I can tell you how we did it: compassion. We each found things from the past that allowed us to feel compassion towards her. We looked at the horror of her childhood and the impact it had on her life and relationships and could see that she did better than her parents had done, that she had done her best given her circumstances. We saw what a strong and independent woman she had been for most of her life and felt compassion for the grief she felt over losing her independence as her body failed. That doesn’t mean that we always cared for her with grace. There were times when we were impatient and irritated. There were times when we were overcome with anger and resentment. My sister and I were lucky – we had each other and talked about our complicated emotions until we could return to compassion. We also both recognized qualities in ourselves that we love. We are strong, independent women and mom played a part in that. We are happy with our lives and she has a part in that too, whether it is a result of something she instilled in us or something we achieved in spite of her – it doesn’t matter.
The only way to get through it is to find a point of compassion, to reach out to others for support and to find humor wherever you can. This is isn’t the answer. It’s simply an answer.