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.