The couple’s therapist listened to my petulant outburst and nodded. My husband stared at me.
“In comparison to everything my parents are dealing with, our life is Camelot. So, sorry if I don’t have a ton of sympathy for you having to survive a toddler’s birthday party when I’m helping my dad in and out of the bathroom and trying to act casual when my mother brings up cremation.”
There’s nothing like my husband’s perspective on life and death and family to make me feel like a jerk. That’s one of the many curious side effects of raising young children while also taking care of elderly parents — there’s plenty of room for both resentment and self-loathing. It’s an equal opportunity maelstrom of emotional land mines.
My husband Brett and I have two kids, and their entrances into the world coincided with my in-laws having to replace canes with walkers. We have spent the last few years researching school districts while simultaneously reading up on assisted living communities. This bilateral process of caregiving is disorienting, complicated and difficult. For everyone.
Brett is an only child. My father-in-law is 90 and can be found most nights feverishly working on his latest book. He’s a well-known anthropologist and is rumored to be the real life inspiration for Indiana Jones. He oozes panache and professorial charm. My mother-in-law is in her mid-eighties. She is small and shockingly present. She recently published a Spanish translation of her book about the social and cultural impact of a devastating Chilean earthquake. She sends us clippings from the Times before they become hot topics on Facebook, regales us with stories about crossing from East Berlin to West Berlin as a young woman, and asks me what I think about all the paper bag-inspired fashions she observes from her third floor window in Tribeca. My in-laws are, for all intents and purposes, beyond cool.
But they are also elderly. This is the fact of life that Brett and his parents have so carefully avoided for all the years I’ve known them. Early in our relationship, I asked, with all the tactlessness of someone with typically middle-aged parents, what his parents’ “plans” were. My 55-year-old parents had plans; everything was laid out in black and white, the independent living cottage reserved, the necessary funds neatly organized and allocated. Surely, Brett’s parents, on the precipice of their 80s, had plans.
Brett responded to my chilly bluntness as if I’d slapped in him the face. There were no plans. And for me to suggest that was to remind Brett that his parents were mortal. Brett made it clear that when it came to his parents, I didn’t understand (true), couldn’t understand (true), and knowing this, should keep my opinions to myself. I interpreted Brett’s sensitivity about his parents’ age as a DO NOT ENTER sign, a space in his life that would forever be off limits to me. I resented this exclusion. I made it about me.
When we met, Brett lived with his parents in their outrageously cool, bohemian loft. Why throw money down the drain for a shoe box in Astoria when you could live in a spacious Tribeca loft and keep an eye on your aging parents? I was attracted to Brett’s thoughtfulness, struck by the love in his eyes when he chided his dad about his tufts of white facial hair, the love in his dad’s eyes as Brett gently hummed the electric razor across his father’s cheeks. Brett’s sense of duty and his personal pride in fulfilling that duty was one of the reasons I knew Brett would make a good partner.
Brett and I moved to New Hampshire for graduate school, had babies and everything changed. Trips to New York became more tenuous thanks to screaming infants and nap training, and my in-laws’ lack of plans loomed larger.
Brett missed stuff. He missed watching our son Charlie zoom across twilit lawns in his super hero cape. He looked at pictures of baby Wren in her skunk costume and said he wanted to eat her. But he was not there to see how painfully edible she really was. He was in New York City, coordinating grocery delivery, oiling stiff windows, providing cellphone tutorials, picking up medicine, installing transcription software to help his father record his work despite failing eyesight.
Charlie is 5, and Wren is 3. As a mother, I’m still very much in it. It being the throes of parenting beings who need bums wiped, backs rubbed, suspicious green things removed from pasta, fears of shadows rationalized. It being that phase in life when time seems to exist in a vacuum — it either jolts ahead with startling speed or ticks by with relentless lassitude. It being a constant alertness to meeting others’ needs, so much so that one often feels like they are accomplishing little, and accomplishing it badly.
Just as I’m constantly aware of whether someone might need a sweater or a snack, Brett is ever aware that his dad might slip on the ice while getting into a cab and that his mother might not be able to open a can of beans because of arthritis. And this knowledge, that his family of origin is 272 miles away and suffering in various capacities and degrees on a fairly regular basis, is an intrinsic part of how he moves through the world as a husband and father.
When I lose sleep stressing about our son’s bratty abhorrence of hand washing, Brett is able to say, “It’s going to be fine. We have bigger things to worry about it.” He is usually right.
I’m tempted toward binaries, to label myself as villain and Brett as hero (or vice versa), but that’s not quite right. In reality, we both contain disparate, competing emotions, and we struggle to maintain a connection to the other while navigating this tension. We struggle to make room for mixed emotions and ambivalence in ourselves, in our relationship.
We’re not equipped with the skills necessary to handle this transition gracefully. When a parent of a 17-year-old tells me to enjoy the toddler phase because the bigger the kid, the bigger the problems, this knowledge of future difficulty is not helpful, nor is it immediately relevant. There is a reason we take our first step on the path of caregiving with tiny lumps of humanity and work ourselves toward angst, opinionated adolescents. We must practice taking care of others, we must build up our supply of selflessness, of empathy; we need to understand how to put others first.
Our family feels the strain of the push and pull of love and duty and care and family bonds. Brett receives urgent calls and his face goes blank with panic. He comes back to us tightly wound and suffering from anxiety, and Charlie voices my unspoken need and whines, “Dad, dad, dad, look at me!” Brett snaps. I burst into tears. We talk about boundaries. We meet with agencies who help families with end of life decisions. We try to control what we cannot control.
We understand in the most visceral, messy ways why so many books are written about crafting end of life plans while you’re still young, we’re all grasping why having these hard conversations before you are forced to have them makes sense. But just like the wisdom of the well-meaning parent of the 17-year-old, our newly acquired knowledge of hindsight is irrelevant. Because right now is hard. Right now can’t wait. Right now is a test that we have no more time to study for.
“Well,” says the couple’s therapist, “How are things?”
Brett and I look at each other like we always do when asked this impossible to answer question. Brett sometimes snaps, and I sometimes cry. Sometimes I snap, and Brett cries. And sometimes Brett says, “I know how hard this must be for you,” and sometimes I say, “I know how hard this must be for you.”
I exhale and say, “We’re doing okay. We’re doing okay.”
Sara is a writer who lives on the seacoast in New Hampshire. She’s working on a collection of essays about coming to terms with the life she always wanted. You can find her on Twitter @slouisepetersen.