Family & Parenting: How To Love Yourself - And Difficult Elderly Parents
My parents have always had a very explosive relationship. There were always shouting matches when I was a child, and I grew up fearful that they were going to get divorced. My dad had a very fiery temper, whereas my mum would be tearful. Inbetween the rows my dad was always very loving to mum.
Later, when I was a teenager, she changed. Instead of being tearful she had a different tactic. Whenever they had a row she’d go off for the day and then my dad would be beside himself worrying about her. When she got back, she’d behave as if nothing had happened. No mention of anything. And she’d be distant with my dad. Eventually, he’d make a joke about forgiving her. And before you knew it, they’d have made up and he’d be all over her again.
I think a lot of people thought that the rows were my dad’s fault and that he was ‘difficult’. Lots of people, including my younger sister, used to say to mum that they didn’t know how she put up with him and she’d just shrug it off. But I knew that he was very affectionate – always hugging her and buying her things and always, always telling me and my sister that we had to be good for her and look after her.
I loved them both, and though as an adult I could see that my dad was far more compassionate and loving than my mum, I couldn’t bear to criticise them at all, and I’d defend them both if anyone – including my sister – made any criticism.
But now I’m beginning to wonder. My dad has had to go into a home because he’s got dementia, and mum has started being very manipulative with me. It’s a sort of emotional blackmail; to the point that I sometimes feel as if I don’t have a life of my own any more. I look after my grandchildren (because I enjoy it) while my daughters work part time but my mother seems to think I’m being difficult if I’m not always available for her. She’s always on about how good my brother and sister are, yet they rarely see her. I know I shouldn’t feel hurt, but it’s hard not to.
My daughters, who are lovely caring people, have both told me to be kind, but not to give up my life for her. They say she was always like this with my dad and now she’s transferring it to me. I’m not so sure. What do you think?
I’ve had to shorten your letter somewhat, but I want you to know, first of all, that you have my utmost sympathy. We’re living in unprecedented times when women of our era are expected to make themselves available for grandchildren and elderly parents: what is dubbed “the sandwich generation”. Even though you enjoy having your grandchildren, I’m not surprised that you feel that you have no life.
You said, in your letter, that your mum was the baby of a big family, and that your aunt hinted that she’d had everyone running rings around her when she was a child. You’ve also alluded to the way in which your father gave in to her and put her on a pedestal. It’s clear that she’s been used to getting her own way!
LOSS OF INDEPENDENCE IN OLD AGE
But even if that were not the case, old age brings its own problems. One of the things that happens to us as we get older is that we become less able to manage certain aspects of our lives and, at the same time, we become more fearful about other things. In fact, not being able to manage may be seen as a reason, in itself, to be fearful!
Some elderly people find it easier to cope with this than others. They’re more than happy to hand over the reins to someone else and they’re usually very appreciative of anything you do for them. You come across kind, sweet, old men and women everywhere.
Others fret about the loss of control over their lives. They recognise that they need companionship, and help with things like doctors’ appointments, shopping, paying bills and so on, but far from feeling a sense of gratitude towards those who help them, they may, actually, feel quite resentful. To them, the person who is helping them is perceived as exerting control over their lives, making decisions for them, and thus ‘robbing them’ of their independence.
RESENTMENT COMES WITH LOSS OF CONTROL
If the person who comes into this caring category is a son or daughter, that resentment may be exacerbated. To the elderly parent it’s not a reasoned argument – more of a subconscious anger; but if it were, it would go something like this: ‘I’m the parent, and here’s this child of mine, who used to come under my authority– and now they’re the one who’s organising my life. Who do they think they are?’
Do you see? The very fact that you were once the child and they the parent is salt in the wound. Now those roles have been reversed, the loss of control over their own life looms even larger.
So where does this leave you? I’d say, in exactly the same situation as your mother. She feels resentful because she’s lost control of her life. You are now also feeling resentful because having to care for your mother is causing you to feel a loss of control over your life!
EVEN THE BEST OF PARENTS ARE NOT PERFECT
You say you’ve only recently begun ‘to wonder’ about criticism made against your parents. It’s often very difficult for children to see their parents as they really are – particularly the children of manipulative, controlling parents. The reality is that no parents are perfect. Even the best of them fail at times. And those, like your mother, must have had their good points or your father wouldn’t have stuck around with her all those years!
So – you asked – what do I think? I think your daughters are right: be kind, but don’t give up your life. You are not your father. You didn’t promise to love, honour and obey in sickness and in health till death parts you. You do not need to play the part of rescuer or persecuted. Your father may or may not have been manipulated, willingly or unwillingly – but he made his own choice about whether to accept it or not. That choice is not binding upon you.
HONOUR YOUR MOTHER AND YOUR FATHER
One of the ten commandments is to ‘Honour your mother and your father’, but elsewhere parents are admonished not to provoke their children to anger. These commands are not conditional: be a good parent and I’ll be a good child, or be a good child and I’ll be a good parent. They are just two sides of a coin.
In other words, be kind by letting your mother know that you understand what she’s going through: the fact that old age has robbed her of many of the faculties she once took for granted. Show sympathy for her loss - of her independence; of your father’s presence and love.
Then be positive. Tell her that you appreciate all she’s done for you. Build her up. Point out to her all the good things that old age can bring to her. More time for herself and less spent on having to take another person into consideration. Being able to have a manicure as well as a hairdo. Taking a magazine instead of the newspaper he wanted. Having lunch with a lady friend. Having a cat or a budgerigar. There are very positive benefits from having to take care of an animal, and in having something to stroke and to lavish your affection upon.
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOURSELF
At the same time, tell her that you want to be as good a mother to your daughters as she was to you. Perhaps she could come with you occasionally when you collect your grandchildren from school? Or perhaps you could bring them to see her for tea? They’d love to have one of her special cakes.
If she continues to be difficult, tell her very clearly, that although you love her and will help her whenever you can, your priority is your husband, your life together and your job. Be firm! Be calm. Don’t feel guilty about it.
You are no one’s slave; nobody’s servant; no subordinate. You are a human being and are, therefore, as deserving of kindness and respect as anyone. Not only from your mother. But also from yourself. So be kind to yourself. And show yourself some respect. Remember one of the greatest Old Testament commandments was translated, in the New Testament, as ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ That means accepting that you have needs, and making sure that they are met. It means sometimes putting yourself first. Showing yourself some love and care. Because if you don’t, nobody will!
» Dear Mel