Parenting your parent

Nothing can prepare you for the emotions of co-parenting your own parent

My brother and I recently finished moving my 67-year-old mother out of her apartment of 10+ years.

It was a move that was a mix of both happy memories and painful reminders of past indiscretions and bad choices. Some in fashion, hair, music, hobbies, attitudes and life choices.

Despite the exhausting days cleaning out drawers, cupboards, closets, and furniture, there was laughter. Laughing with my brother about photos and old CDs, magazines or concert tickets we held on to. But there were moments when I cried. I was overwhelmed by the situation we were in, and the weight of the last four months leading up to this moment. This entire process has weighed me down, as if I’m wearing a jacket with rocks in the pockets. You adapt to the weight and keep moving, but there are moments when you feel the full force of it and can’t hold yourself up, or even breathe.

So, how did we get here?

Four months ago, while on vacation, I woke up to a text from my brother saying “let me know as soon as you wake up.” Something was wrong.

So I Skyped him from my hostel bed, whispering because it was 6am in Japan and my roommates (who were polite enough not to snore) weren’t up yet.

“Mom was admitted to the hospital yesterday. I don’t have a lot of details but will know more soon.”**

** This statement while presented as a quote is a close paraphrase of what he said to me. It was early.

And in that moment, I became a parent. Well, a co-parent to my parent.

Nothing prepares you for the reality of your parents aging, and ultimately if they’re sick and need you. Watching them transition from once almost invincible to now slowing down, is tough. I don’t have a better word to describe that.

The parent/child relationship is pretty straightforward. The parent…parents. He or she raises, teaches and guides their children in life. Teaching them right from wrong, instilling a sense of responsibility, and calling out the traits they want to pass along, or caution against. Preparing their children for life’s harsh realities.

The child goes through the lifecycle (as the parent once did) of birth, toddler, adolescence, adulthood, perhaps being a parent themselves, and instilling in their children what they were taught, or taught not to do.

This may seem romantic given the changing dynamic of families, but bear with me because no matter what, this is what I know.

A parent never stops being a parent. And a child never stops needing their parent, even if how they need them changes with time.

I was raised to be strong, independent, successful, and hard working, but I still need a parent to hold me and tell me it will be okay. To push me forward when I stand back and remind me that if I falter, they’ll be there.

But now, that’s my role.

My mom’s health is finally rebounding a bit, or moving in a more positive direction, but at first, it wasn’t like that.

After she was admitted to the hospital, we finally found out what was wrong. Her recovery from foot surgery (while complicated) was not finally “getting better” as she told us. And our blind faith in her words came crashing down as the doctors told us the real situation, and that there wasn’t an immediate solution. This would be a long road.

The first few months were a blur of non-stop calls to doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, state aid offices, and to my brother, sharing everything we were both learning on the fly. Trying to figure out alone, but together, how to get my mom the help she needed, and get her organized so she could receive state aid for the long road ahead. Lunch hours and post-work time were spent Googling to learn as much as I could about disability, Medicare and Medicaid in Wisconsin.

But that wasn’t even the hardest part.

The next wave of co-parenting included feelings that fluctuated between comfortably numb (if I was lucky) to feeling like my heart was being gutted out with a rusty, dull spoon.

How I felt was determined by the almost daily calls and texts with my mom, which were completely separate from other calls with my brother trying to figure out what the fuck we do next. These conversations with my mom fell in to three categories.

First, some calls were her complaining, yelling, using me as an emotional punching bag when she got frustrated. And me going full-on supportive co-parent, saying that it would get better, it’ll be okay, we’ll figure it out! My brother and I are here for her, this won’t be forever. Mom, I need you to dig deep and be strong right now.

Second, there were the bad calls. Those included phone calls with my mom’s fear and frustration boiling over in to uncontrollable sobbing for minutes on end. “Mom I can’t hear you, I need you to take a breath and then finish talking. Tell me what’s wrong.” More sobbing, each choking cry another stab to my chest. Those calls drained me, many times leaving me to cry myself, or go to bed and just lay in the dark, wishing I would wake up from this horrible dream.

Third, there were the tough love calls. Where she would tearfully whine and complain about how this happened to her, and complain about her facility and the people in it. I would dutifully listen and based on the situation, I served up a cold dish of reality. I pleaded and pushed her to hear me, only to find out later that it went nowhere. Or, I scolded, yelled or threatened, listening to her cower away from me as my voice bellowed over the phone because she’s behaving like a brat and needs to shut the fuck up.

My reaction to the third type of calls scares me. But it’s the only way I seem to handle it sometimes

And then it all builds to this move. Knowing she won’t return home, we can finally say goodbye to this apartment.

I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was, physically and emotionally. Rushing to pack and drop off pieces of my childhood at Goodwill or Salvation Army. Even if I didn’t want my childhood treasures anymore, or have space for it, I didn’t get to mourn them before giving them away. After dropping off my old Raggedy Ann doll at Salvation Army, I got back in to the car and started sobbing. As my brother held my shoulder for support, I gave in to what I felt because it was just too much.

The anger. The pain. The frustration. The fear. All layered on top of me as I tossed a doll in to a bin because I needed the comfort that doll once gave me. But I had to also give it away.

At the end of our long, exhausting week, my brother and I called our mom to give her the update. Sweaty, dirty, dusty and exhausted, we proudly reported the work we did and what was wrapping up.

And then she started complaining. And the minute I heard it, my brain shut down. Sure she said thank you and was “so grateful” for what we did, but I couldn’t hear it or believe it because after all we had done, she was complaining.

Complaining like a bratty petulant child.

One day, after a tough part of the move and a shitty day at work, I walked in to my dad’s house (where I had been staying for a few days).

Prior to this arrival home, we had a fight on the phone about nothing. I was yelling out of my own frustration and he was all too willing in that moment to take it. But it wasn’t his fault.

So I walked in the door, went to him and apologized.

And he said it was okay. He looked at me like he knew I was trying so hard to hold it together, but failing quickly, so he reached out and hugged me.

He held me tightly and kept whispering that it would be okay. The tears I couldn’t contain anymore came out and I let myself find strength in his words and embrace because I wanted to believe him.

Now that the move is done and we figure out what’s next, I’m trying to live in the comfortably numb, and pray I can resume my “child” status with my mom soon.