Thoughtful Thursday: Obligation

June 3, 2010

Thoughtful Thursday

Welcome to June’s Intelligentsia, the people who commented on every Thoughtful Thursday post for the month of May.

#17: Wiseguy from Woman Anyone?
#13: Photogrl from Not the Path I Chose
#12: Ernessa from Fierce and Nerdy and 32 Candles
#11: Kristen from Dragondreamer’s Lair
#11: Lost In Translation from We Say IVF, They Say FIV
#8: Elana from Elana’s Musings
#7: A from Are You Kidding Me?
#6: Stacie from Heeeeere Storkey, Storkey!
#3: Rebecca from Northern Grin

Thoughtful ThursdayI just got a call from my dad. He and I have a fine relationship; we talk when we see each other in person, and we email, but we don’t call. If he’s calling, something must be wrong.

There’s a crisis with my mother, having to do with her emerging dementia and her ability to function daily. Her mental issues are also affecting her ability to manage her own health care. My parents are now divorced, but he still looks out for her.

My first thought was to get on the next plane.

My second thought was that I can’t just hop on a plane across the country when I have two babies, leaving them with a husband about to go out of town on a business trip and a part-time babysitter. I also can’t bring them with me since there would be no one to care for them while I’m swooping in to deal with my mother. But honestly, even before I had children, I didn’t hop on planes when she had crises — largely because she is the type to refuse all help.

Long-term, she’ll only be able to live independently for so long. Am I supposed to undercut my career and settle for any job I can find in her city? Am I supposed to have her uproot her life and come to live with us, spending more and more of my time helping her as she requires increasing care? Am I supposed to devote some huge chunk of my income to pay for her to live in a facility?

I don’t want to do any of those things.

This is when being an only child is particularly difficult, because I don’t want to do them but I can’t pass along or share the responsibilities.

I know many people who have devoted years to caring for aging or ill relatives. I can’t see myself ever becoming one of those people. If my husband or children needed anything, of course, anything. Parents, grandparents, aunts, etc.? I just don’t think I have it in me. Maybe I’m too selfish, or too dedicated to the life I’ve worked so hard to build.

At the intellectual level I can lament the lack of family-mindedness in our culture. I can tsk-tsk about the people in DH’s grandmother’s nursing home who never get any visitors or calls. I can condemn those who let one family member take the full burden of caring for someone while everyone else does nothing. But when it comes to my own life? I might just be one of those people.

Or maybe I’ll change once my mother starts asking for help — or once she stops being herself and isn’t able to refuse help.

For all of my mother’s flaws, she would do anything for me. She’s always been willing to do anything to make me happy.

I’m afraid I can’t return the favor.

How strong is your sense of family obligation? How far would you go? What are your limits?

18 Responses to “Thoughtful Thursday: Obligation”

  1. a Says:

    I was the last one at home when my dad was ill. I somewhat feel like I’ve done my share. (He was hospital-bed-in-the-dining-room ill.) We’ve encountered this situation a bit, as we have invited my husband’s grandmother to live with us. She won’t because she’d have to move away from her friends and her church. My mom feels like she’s going to die alone, since we’re all spread apart, but we’ve more or less decided that my oldest sister should take her. She’s another one who won’t move away from her home.

    I would take my mother in, but I have limited time and strength. I won’t be quitting my job, and I would have to hire a nurse/caregiver to do all the hard work.

  2. Elana Kahn Says:

    I don’t live close enough to my mother to be able to help her full time, and luckily she doesn’t need that kind of help. She has a boyfriend and functions just fine on her own. If she needed extra help (we’re talking in like 20+ years) then I’m not sure what I’d do. I can’t really leave Boston for Rochester for any great length of time now, but who knows what will be then. I do feel obligated to make sure she is safe and happy, but I would really have to make that decision when the time comes.

  3. WiseGuy Says:

    I come from a culture that strongly ingrains a sense of family…underline strongly there…

    People will leave jobs, keep pouring money at a constant bad-debt of a sibling, shift cities to stay with parents, allow people to share in the household like hosts rather than guests.

    I am a selfish person. Whatever I ever do, I will always leave out space for myself. I don’t think I can answer your question very well because the ultimate test of whatever I say would be if such a need ever befell me.

    One thing is for sure, between helping financially and physically displacing self, I would certainly prefer the former.

    If I have an ailing close one, I might volunteer to welcome them in my home, rather than going to theirs. My parents have taken care of a lot of aged and ailing family members, and I grew up in a house with ‘constant’ guests and all, and I would perhaps not mind that myself.

    My decision to help would be greatly tempered by how close they are to me…either by my bonding, or what obligations press me to do.

  4. loribeth Says:

    Like Elana, I live too far away from my parents to be able to check in with them regularly. (A standing joke between me & my sister, who lives an hour’s drive from them, is that she is going to move to Africa to raise baby elephants, so then *I* will be the closest daughter & they will be MY problem.)(At least, I hope it’s a joke…!) They are still relatively young (69 & 70) & I don’t think they’d ever want to live with me anyway.

    On the other hand, dh’s family has more of a history of multigenerational living — but I made it clear to dh when we got married that I did NOT envision any of our parents living with us. Check in & provide support, absolutely. Live with us, sorry, no. I like my privacy too much. His dad is 81. StepMIL is 67 & her 47-year-old daughter live with them. We live closer to them than dh’s brother — we do drive them to family gatherings & dh has gone with his dad to medical appointments.

  5. Rebecca Says:

    I hate being an only child for exactly this. When my dad died it all fell on me and it sucked.

  6. michelehaytko Says:

    Both my husband and I were raised that you take care of your family. No matter what. When my dad was ill, he lived with us for two years until he got on his feet. It was tough and our marriage was under pressure, but we always found a way to cope. When his grandfather was sick, we were in the process of looking for new jobs and moving when he passed away. It’s just the way it is for our family. Does it suck to be uprooted? Yes. To not feel like it is “your” life? Yes. But it would suck more (at least from our upbringing and perspective) to feel like we didnt do anything.

    With the kids being so small now, it would be such a huge adjustment. I’m not sure where we would even begin these days.

  7. heather Says:

    wow totally hit it on the head for me, i have two parents both are disabled. i stillhave both of them and they are still able to take of each other, but i worry about them if one were to pass. my father was out of the country for a couple of years and my brother moved in with my mom to help her, and everyday i thanked god it wasnt me. i felt guilty, but i also saw how hard it was on him and how isolating it was. so yeah i feel the way you do, i dont think I could do it, and i fear about it. but dont get me wrong i adore my mom, i just dopnt think i could live with her again.

  8. Beth Says:

    This is an ongoing internal battle for me as well, so thank you for being so honest about your feelings regarding the care of your mother. I also have lots of tsk-tsk thoughts about elder care in our community and not thinking more of a community. Particularly I think about how as a community we ought to support things like paid maternity leave because the raising of our children is a community thing, even for those who do not have children for whatever reason.

    But I equally am the person who when it comes to me, I’m sure I cannot be the one directly caring particularly for my mother when she ages to that state. Not because I couldn’t physically care for her but becuase my relationship with my mother has such toxic qualities to it that I cannot emotionally handle that extended time with her. I feel guilty about it, particularly when others talk about being so close with their mothers, but it is what it is.

  9. I’m sorry to hear that you’re dealing with this with your mom. It is a situation that scares the bejezus out of me.

    I am not a caretaker. Last summer when my husband was in an accident, our saving grace was that he was not someone to be taken care of for long.

    I do worry about being called on to take care of a loved one indefinitely. I live close to my parents, but, unlike you, I have a sister nearby and another 4 hours away.

    I look at it this way: when the time comes it will work itself out. I hope I will have whatever it takes to be kind and loving and compassionate, and to act whole-heartedly.

    Great (but uncomfortable) question.

  10. Ana Says:

    This question brings up lots of things I don’t want to think about so I won’t right now. But the obligation is very very deep. Though we are “american” in a lot of ways, I think family obligation is one part of our distant culture we still cling to. My husband is an only child, I am the older of two so this will be coming up in our (hopefully not near) future.

  11. Ana Says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that I am sorry and really empathize with you in this. In a lot of ways it does not make sense to jeopardize your and your childrens’ happiness for that of your older relatives…

  12. Photogrl Says:

    This is a tough one for me…

    When my mother was dying, I did everything and anything I could do, as the older sister. BUT my mother and I were very close…I just couldn’t imagine saying no. Yet, there were many times that I didn’t want to go or I wanted a break.

    With my father, I don’t think I could do the same. We don’t talk, he’s only a father when it pleases him. Cold, yes, but I don’t think I could forgive all the years he’s missed to help him out.

    Obligations are hard.

    I hope that you can find some happy medium with your situation.


  13. coffeegrl Says:

    This is so personal. But it does have cultural components too. My husband, being Japanese and the eldest son, does have some expected responsibility for his parents. When we first married (4 years ago), his parents essentially gave us their blessing to live here in the U.S. which we were doing at the time, saying “We’ve got 2 other children still living here in Japan, go to the U.S. and take care of your wife’s parents if need be” (I’m the oldest of only 2 and neither my sister not I live near my parents anymore). I was so touched.

    Then my father-in-law’s mother died and shortly thereafter he had a herniated disc and long story short-ish, part of the reason that we ended up living in Japan part-time for now is to help out my husband’s parents and to offer them care and support. Luckily, his father’s health improved and both my in-laws seem to be doing well right now. But ultimately my sister and I would like to share the care for my parents. My husband fully supports that idea in theory – it is after all ingrained in him culturally and personally, but we’re sensing the need to support his parents as well (despite their earlier suggestion that they wouldn’t need us to help them substantially).

    I guess we’ll see. But I suspect we’ll be helping one or both sets of parents quite a bit. The big difference is that nursing homes and more full-time care are not something that the U.S. culture is opposed to and my mother has already said, “If I’m that badly off, please don’t try to keep me at home and do all the care yourself.” I’m not sure my in-laws would or could say the same. We’ll just have to take it one day at a time and they’ll have to accept that there are competing demands (two countries, two sets of parents, our two children etc.)

  14. Thank you for your honesty! I feel much the same way. My mother is definitely starting to decline, and I find myself angry that she hasn’t taken better care of herself (she eats poorly, smokes, and does not exercise at all). She took care of my grandfather in his last few years, but she also got to raise her family and see her children grow up before that became her problem. Because of her poor health and self abuse, my sister and I are probably going to need to step in at a much earlier time, right when we are starting our families and trying to live our own lives. I am very bitter and angry about that.

    We haven’t had this discussion with my mother yet, but both my sister and I agree that she will have to go to a nursing home if she needs that kind of care in the near future. It just isn’t something that we can handle. I feel bad saying that, but it’s the truth. I am not going to sacrifice the best years of my life taking care of a grumpy woman who feel entitled to everything. Nope. I love her, but I will not ruin my marriage and my daughter’s childhood by letting my mother move in with us.

  15. strongblonde Says:

    omg. am i too late to answer this?

    i am totally torn with this same issue. i’m the oldest of three girls and one of two kids who are in healthcare. i tell my sisters all of the time that my parents are NOT coming to live with me. that makes me feel awful, but i don’t think that it would be the best.

    my mom and dad have always been very private and don’t share much of what is going on with them. as you may remember, i did diagnose my mom with parkinsons two years ago. since then, i have kind of forced them to keep me in the loop about things. additionally, my dad is starting to display some symptoms of dementia.

    so. i still don’t want them living with me, but i also need to be involved so i can make sure that they are at least getting the best care available. the other options? live with my single sister in an apartment or my other sister down south. both options are a disaster.

    ….they are not ready to move or make any decisions…i just see my mom progressing rapidly and it makes me sad. 😦

  16. jill Says:

    (Sorry my response is late. I want to start responding to these again and I figured I’d just jump in now.)

    This is so difficult. I feel for you and hope you can come up with a good solution that is the best for you, your family, and your mom.

    I’m really not sure what I would do. I have two sisters if my mom needed the care and on my dad’s side I have one brother. Currently I am the most financially stable of all my syblings but the least likely care-giver I think. I would definitely work with my syblings and try to come up with something that fit for us all. If I was left to be the care-giver, I would consider live-in but I think the more likely would be a facility. I like to think I would be a frequent visitor.

    I hope I never have to make these decisions.

  17. Lynn Says:

    What honesty. Well those options are never something we are going to say “YAY” about. Personally I couldn’t just do nothing though, I would pick the least invasive option and probably move my mom to an asst living facility near me without uprooting my life.

    I would say doing nothing would be a pretty selfish option.

  18. Mel Says:

    I have few limits. I would help my family in a heartbeat. Sometimes it isn’t exactly realistic with the twins in tow too, but I have jumped in the car if not in the plane and just gone to help. And I live close to my parents and would be honoured to be chosen to help them when they’re older. I see it as this circle from when they cared for me as a child (and now as an adult!).

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