By Louise Ward*
There was a character in a novel I read once, an elderly New York Jewish mother who felt let down by her children. ‘One mother can care for five children,’ she muttered, ‘But five children cannot care for one mother.’ Ouch. I can’t remember the name of the novel, but I’ve never forgotten the line, and in the last couple of years I’ve thought of it often.
There’s not five of us, just my two sisters and me, and while we certainly didn’t abandon our parents, we struggled to figure out how to make things work if they were to stay in their own home. The doing of the jobs that needed doing was sometimes tricky but achievable (like prepared meals and yard maintence). However, there was the extra layer that came with taking on the mantle of ‘carer’, when I’d always been, ‘daughter’ and even ‘friend’. The dynamics of our relationship changed.
It was a bit of an emotional minefield: Mum and Dad felt uncomfortable asking my sisters and I to do things for them (naturally as parents would), so often they wouldn’t ask at all. Dad would go without the mustard he liked or Mum would skip hair appointments (when she’d always been an every-six-weeks-or-perish kind of gal).
They worried, like so many people of their generation, about being, ‘a bother’ (though that was never the case). So my sisters and I would try to anticipate their needs.
I’d call and instead of asking, ‘What did you think of Veep last night?’ I’d say, ‘Do you need me to take you to shops today?’ If Mum said no, I wouldn’t believe her and then I’d say (trying to be casual), ‘Oh, I just noticed the other day the fruit bowl was empty.’ Mum’s tone would grow snippy, ‘Louise. If I need fruit I’ll ask for fruit.’
I was trying to help but now realise I seemed like I was prying, or worse, being critical. ‘What do you mean, do I think the lawn needs mowing?’ Dad snapped one day, ‘Are you saying I’m letting the place go?’
Around and around we went. After a few months of this I realised my relationship with my parents was changing, and not in a good way. Conversation with Mum especially had always been easy, filled with funny anecdotes, peppered with opinion and plenty of laughs. Now our conversations were strained and less warm. Neither of us were happy.
The change came, as a side-effect of a change made for a completely different reason (as it often does). We’d finally, finally, convinced Mum and Dad that getting someone for a few hours, three times a week to help with shopping and taking them to appointments was not an outrageous indulgence but necessary, practical and affordable.
Not only did it change the way they lived, it changed the tone of our conversation. I noticed that my relationship with Mum especially was getting back to the way it had always been. I no longer had to navigate the emotional minefield when asking Mum how she’s getting to her podiatrist appointment because I know Pam will take her.
Naturally enough, Mum and Dad are more comfortable asking Pam to provide driving services and do errands than they are when asking me or my sisters. They don’t have to apologise when they ask for something because running around is Pam’s job (although you’d never know it from the way she approaches it – it’s like she loves nothing more than taking Dad across town to see his accountant).
For me, it’s meant I’m back to being a daughter. I’m still devoted to my parents, but I don’t have to be as dutiful. I still help my parents when they ask but between me, my sisters and Pam they’ve stopped hesitating when asking for the things they need. Conversations are easy again, the laughs are back, Dad has his mustard, and Mum’s hair looks great.
‘I’m a writer by profession as well as a wife, friend, mother and daughter. I’m surprised and unprepared for the fact that the ‘daughter’ part of that resume is becoming the dominant one as I approach fifty. As I was growing up there were all sorts of articles and discussions and TV shows about building a career and raising a family but nothing at all about what happens when your parents, perhaps suddenly, need your care when you’re still up to your ears in career and kids. I suspect in the next decade we might see a Netflix drama (or even a comedy?) called ‘Sandwich’, but until then, I’ll write my thoughts for Five Good Friends. Because thinking leads to talking and talking means we’re not alone.’
* A pseudonym to protect this family’s privacy. The story is authentic.