Mother-daughter. Daughter-mother. With aging parents, the lines blur in ways that make you question everything you know about yourself.
I realize I’m coming late to the sandwich generation, blessed as I have been with parents who up until about 18 months ago were in robust health and looked 20 years younger than their 75 and 80 years.
But in recent months, I have discovered what daughters do when they “grow up.” They mother their parents. I have watched my friends and colleagues do it: Dropping everything to fly to be near a bedside; juggling school and pharmacy pickups; making time to sort out parental finances in that 25th hour of the day.
I have done it myself.
The latest phone calls with my mother have been the most intimate of our lives. She asks advice on caring for my father, needs someone to talk to about the weight of caregiving, wants assurances that she’s doing the best she can in a situation that cannot end in a way any of us want it to.
I listen. I order products online that can make their lives a little easier. I fly to Chicago for doctor’s appointments. My mother is a remarkable woman, loving but indomitable and whip smart, a force of nature. Maybe that is why these are our first truly intimate conversations.
When I was growing up, I rarely asked Mom for advice because I was a little afraid to show her I needed it. She was always so pulled together and expected so much that I rose to the standard without much question. It’s not that I regret or resent it. She made me who I am; she prepared me for the life I’ve led. That is a legacy any mother should be proud of.
But in our most recent conversations, there has been a shift in the balance of power. She is becoming the daughter I never was. She needs a little mothering now, with gentleness and not judgment, from me.
I know I’m not alone. There are an estimated 20 million Americans who are raising children and caring for elderly parents simultaneously. Some do it from around the corner; some do it from halfway across the country.
Ultimately, the story always ends the same way. I know that, too, because in the last few weeks I have written no less than a half-dozen sympathy cards to friends, colleagues and neighbors who have all lost a parent.
Burying a parent as an adult child is in the “proper order of things.” It is part of the natural cycle of life. It is far more understandable and acceptable — on an intellectual level at least — than a parent burying a child or a young child burying a parent.
But that doesn’t make it any easier. No one — not parent or child — wants the role reversal that becomes inexorable in the end.
As daughters, we learn to fight with our mothers and roll our eyes. We also learn, as if by osmosis, a thousand little gestures, sayings and actions, delivered in the course of millions of minutes of interaction. This is the stuff that creates the (mock) horrifying realization of “I’ve become my mother.” In short, my mother has raised me for this moment, and I want to be every inch her daughter.
It’s easy to think that in becoming a mother to our parents that what is lost is our role as a daughter. But I have been a daughter since the day I was born, and a daughter I will be till I leave this earth.
That is a mother’s real legacy.
Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.