My relationship with my mother has changed since we all moved.
I knew about the phenomenon of role reversal that many adult children experience with their parents. As the parent ages, the adult child becomes the caregiver. The parent becomes more and more dependent on his or her child. I have seen that happening gradually in my own relationship with my mother since my father died suddenly about twenty years ago. The velocity of that role reversal has certainly increased since our move. In our old home, my mother needed a lot of help with even simple physical tasks, but was very independent and competent when it came to arranging her own life and making decisions. She always made her own medical appointments, decided on her own purchases, and even untangled problems like a glitch in her credit card billing on her own. Up until a year before we moved, she was even preparing her own tax returns. Since our move, she has had something of a crisis of confidence. She is still perfectly capable of making her own decisions and arrangements, but seems reluctant to do so. I am making her doctors’ appointments, overseeing her home improvements, monitoring her health insurance coverage, and, at her insistence, reviewing any research she does prior to making any decision.
At first, I was a bit disconcerted with this, as I thought it meant that her move across country had somehow triggered a decline in her general ability to cope. After all, if she was doing all these things on her own and working full time for several months a year and doing substantial volunteer work while she was in her old home, why could she suddenly not trust herself to decide on a medical insurance plan once she moved across the country? Then, a friend of mine suggested that it was very possible that my mother was managing all the routine tasks of her life the best she could simply because she had to do it herself. My friend was absolutely correct. My mother might not have been comfortable or confident in what she was doing, but didn’t feel she could ask for help because I was working fulltime at a very stressful job and lived 70 miles away from her. Once I retired and we were living 15 miles from each other, she felt freer to show her vulnerability. In reality, she has not declined. In fact, quite the opposite is true. She is feeling well and her blood pressure is under control, even without medication. She admits to feeling happier and less stressed. Now, my challenge is finding the balance between helping her continue to feel well and making sure she retains her sense of independence and competency.
So, the real change in the relationship is not the role reversal. It is more related to that living 15 miles from each other thing.
When I was living 75 miles from my mother, it was easy to seem like a supportive, compliant daughter. I talked to my mom on the phone a couple of times a week and saw her every three weeks or so. I’m sure she thought I was pretty close to perfect. If I made a mistake or did something of which I thought my mother would disapprove, it was easy to just not mention it. Once we started seeing each other four or five times a week, it was more difficult to keep things from her. She knows when I buy something she thinks is frivolous. She knows when I give a homeless person money just because I don’t want to deal with his annoyance if I refuse. She knows when I agree to something that Max thinks we should do just because I’m tired of arguing. She also sees me get snappish and sarcastic when I am tired or hungry. I am pretty sure she knows now that I am nowhere near perfect. Even though she only voices her opinions gently and occasionally, I know her well enough to know when she disapproves. If I basked in the sunshine of her approval for 55 years before our move, I fear I am now in danger of sinking into the mire of her disapproval. And I care way too much about that.
It has been an uncomfortable transition. When I first noticed the shift, I felt sad and empty. I mourned that, in trying to do a good thing by taking on my mother’s caretaking, I seemed to have lost my relationship with her. I knew my mother still loved me and appreciated who I am and who I try to be. She probably has a much better grasp than I do on the fact that it is perfectly okay that she disagrees with some of my decisions. Still, I tended to become overcome by anxiety by the fact that my mother might not always agree with me.
If I am not the “easy” daughter who is never a cause for concern, do I cease to be lovable?
Of course not.
As more time passed, I remembered that love is a verb. And so, in some weird non-grammatical way, is “relationship.” It moves and changes and grows. As I went about my regular routine of helping my mother and trying to maximize the joy in her life, I realized that I was starting to enjoy the same closeness I used to share with her. As my mom and I “relationshiped,” we surfed through the turbulence. While we may not always pull in absolute tandem, we do respect where each other wants to go.
I learned that parental disagreement, even disapproval, is not a catastrophe. Growing up should teach a child that it is safe to disconnect from a parent and live her own life without losing the love of the parent. This education happens to everyone. It is just that, for most people, it happens at around age 15 or 16. It took me until I was 56.
As my mom and I continue to come face-to-face with disagreements and no catastrophe happens, I think our relationship is becoming more authentic again. Perhaps even more authentic than it used to be. We are both coming to terms with the fact that we are each complicated, real people and not just our respective roles- perfect daughter and perfect mother. Or more likely, we are just redefining what our “perfect” means.
So what do you think? Have you taken on additional caretaking responsibilities? Has it changed your relationship with your loved one? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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