Grace Periods

The parental grace period is a small window of freedom, in which you are too old to be dominated by your parents but too young to really worry about them.

This grace period is usually fairly short.  And when it ends, it frightens you. Carolyn Knapp, from The Merry Recluse, A Life in Essays

My parental grace period ended a long time ago, and in fact, I’m not sure I ever really had one.  I think I’ve always worried about my parents, especially my mother, in a way that’s probably neither healthy or normal.  My therapist once called it “enmeshment,”  a behaviorist term that refers to being completely involved in someone else’s life to the extent that you ignore your own preferences and needs in deference to the person you’re enmeshed with.

As a youngster, this manifested itself in an extreme case of separation anxiety.  I recall being totally and completely convinced that if my mother were let out of my sight, something “awful” would happen to her…i.e., she would die.  For quite a few years, I became hysterical if she had to leave me behind.  As an adult, I can see what a hardship this must have been for her.  Rightly or wrongly, she indulged this fear, and did her level best to never leave me home alone.  If that were to happen nowadays, of course I would have been dragged off to therapy posthaste.  But in the 1960’s, that was, of course, unheard of.

Finally, and happily for both of us, I eventually outgrew this loathsome paranoia.  But during the time of my parents (really messy) divorce, I found myself again slammed against the wall with fear and worry for my mother, at the agonies she was going through and my complete powerlessness to do anything about it.  Because on top of my problem with enmeshment is a huge dollop of control freakishness, and when people I love get into situations I can’t help them with, I’m simply wrecked.

In the past three years, I’ve come face to face with the kind of loss that’s inevitable when you reach a certain age.  I watched my mother in law, my uncle, and my aunt, fall in rapid succession.  My mother will be 84 years old in March.  She still lives alone in her home, which is just down the street from me.  She’s ambulatory, and her mind is sharp as a tack.  She still cooks dinner for me three nights a week when I’m working, and dog sits when we travel. She keeps up with current affairs, is very savvy about the modern world.  She’s fiercely independent in many ways.

But I can see changes, and I know she sees them too. She’s got chronic pain from arthritis that’s starting to inhibit her mobility, and make her generally fatigued and depressed.  She’s frightened of falling, and so is afraid to get out much when the weather is snowy and icy (which it is most of the time now).  I’d love to take her to Florida for the winter,  but she has continued to resist doing  that every single year, until now I don’t think she’s up to making the trip even if she wanted to.

So many things I wish we had done differently, my mother and I.  And  I get so scared about her sometimes that I’m frozen with fear.  What can I do to make her life better?  How can I help?  What will I do when there’s nothing left to be done?

As I feel time rush away from me, I simply long for the wisdom and strength to take care of her the way she’s always taken care of me.

That’s the kind of grace I need.



12 thoughts on “Grace Periods

  1. Knowing how deeply you love your mom, I believe you are doing your absolute best – and this is all we are capable of. If you can believe in that and make peace with that, then that place deep inside where you draw your strength from… it’s reserves will be full.
    I’m not is your shoes, I know. But from the outside looking in, I truly believe you are taking the best care of your mom. xo

  2. Becca,
    Even though my situation has changed, I still worry about what will happen if Carolyn decides she can’t stay with Dad any longer. What will I do? My own health is in jeopardy now, but can I stand by and allow things to go in a direction that isn’t best for my father? I know my husband is concerned about what I will do if it comes to that.

    I had a conversation with my son and DIL about a slightly different “grace period” over the holidays. I told them that because people are living longer, our generation only has a short period between their children becoming independent and their parents becoming dependent. Sometimes, as in my case, one’s own health becomes an issue before the parent dies. H and I had about ten years. Of course, we were blissfully ignorant during that ten years. We don’t understand until we understand.

    I’m sure that Shoreacres can speak to this issue, too. She’s in a similar situation.

    This was a wonderful and honest post, but that isn’t unusual for you, Becca. I have no advice except the obvious. Take each day as it comes, but even that isn’t enough because we always have to think of how we’ll handle what comes next. I have faith in your decisions.

    • I know so many of my blogging friends are in this situation, as are many of my “real world” friends – that’s one of the reasons I felt comfortable sharing these feelings, because I know so many of you are going through the same thing.

      I think about that other grace period too, and I’m wondering if J. and I are in it now, and worry about wasting it. Or I wonder if it’s still to come. The great unknown bothers me – control freak that I am.

      It helps to know I’m not alone, it helps to have the friendly hug of support your words here (and on your blog) provide 🙂

  3. Unfortunately, there is no manual that tells us what to do under these circumstances. All we can do is do the best we can both for ourselves and those we take care of. I’ve been down this road and it is not easy. What I neglected to do was to take care of myself and ended up so entangled in my mother’s pain and suffering that I forgot about what a good caretaker is all about. I learned that unless we take very good care of ourselves we will be unable to take good care of others. Spending our days in worry about what is to come will only make our pain and our loved one’s pain greater.

    • You make a very good point about the need for the caregiver to care for themselves. As you can imagine, I usually put myself and my needs last in any equation. That’s what causes the worry and frustration to build up to a fever pitch -when I get overtired and overstressed. Another good reminder, from someone who knows 🙂 Thank you…

  4. I know I am in a different stage in my life, but I can relate to the first paragraph in your post. My mom and I are only18 years apart, I’m an only child and I’m terrified of losing her. Thank you for sharing your feelings so openly…

    • It’s both a blessing and a curse to be extremely close to a parent. But definitely more a blessing…
      I’m glad you have that relationship with your mom. I hope you enjoy it for many, many more years!

  5. I may be too old to be dominated by my parent, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t give it her best effort. She’s the one who wanted to be enmeshed with me, and trust me – if I ever decide to write about “those” years… Well, let’s just say that none of you has even a clue about the level to which a determined youngster can take passive agressiveness. There are stories that can be told as just flat funny now – although they weren’t at the time.

    The thing that caught my attention is that line – What will I do when there’s nothing left to be done? That’s easy – to answer if not to do. That’s the time when we learn what it is to just “be” with someone.

    • You’re exactly right about learning to just “be”- I had to learn that with my aunt.

      Hmmm, it sounds as if your childhood was quite interesting, to say the least.

  6. I think the hardest thing for an only child — and you’re one too, right? — is to watch a parent age and near the end. I remember thinking, “He bought the diapers and formula. Now he uses Depends and Ensure.” It may be a circle, but it’s one I didn’t enjoy closing — not because I didn’t enjoy it — bad phrasing, but I think you know what I mean — but because it was so hard emotionally — and to know ultimately the end game is you’re still there; they aren’t.

    I don’t regret one minute of that time — and there were lots of talks, lots of explanations, questions and answers. We had no unfinished business. And my wish to anyone challenged at these times — leave no unfinished business. One still grieves, but you know you said what you needed to. Hugs to you…

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