Way back when I was in my mid twenties I experienced what I call my “year from hell.” It began when I was diagnosed with hepatitis just before Christmas. I had been feeling lethargic and lightheaded, but I pushed on. With two little girls under the age of six and classes to teach at my church I had little time to pamper my symptoms. I kept pushing myself even as I silently worried that something was quite wrong. It was not until my next door neighbor, Carol, looked me in the eyes and saw their yellow tinge that I agreed to contact my doctor to find out what was wrong. By the time I actually knew that I had a legitimate reason to feel so bad, I was too weak to do the simplest of chores and both my husband and mother-in-law had contracted the same disease. To say that the Christmas holidays were a bust that year would be an understatement. It would not be until the end of February that I finally beat the illness and began working my way back to good health.
Just when things began to look sunny my husband, Mike, became feverish and weak with a strange illness unlike anything either of us had ever seen. After a disturbing rash appeared on different parts of his body, he consulted with a doctor who was as baffled as we were. He referred Mike to a specialist in infectious diseases who eventually determined that Mike had somehow contracted a fungal disease called blastomycosis. The treatment for the sometimes deadly illness was a long stretch of chemotherapy with a drug called Amphotericin B.
From May until well into the fall of that year Mike spent three days each week in the hospital while an IV slowly dripped the drug into his body. It took hours for the process and sometimes resulted in violent reactions like chills that made his entire body shake. Meanwhile I was at home caring for our two girls and wondering at night if I was going to become a young widow like my mother had been. There were no guarantees that that treatment would work and the doctor prepared us for the possibility that the fungus would overtake Mike’s body in spite of the aggressive drug and end his short life.
I remember being beside myself at the time. I had never really recovered from my father’s death when I was a child and I worried that my children might have to endure the kind of grief that had stalked me for so long. Additionally I had already become a part time caretaker for my mom whenever her bipolar disorder raged out of control. I felt a huge weight on my shoulders and all I wanted was for all of it to just go away.
I have incredible friends who stepped up to watch my children so that I might sit with Mike during his infusions of the drug. I’d go to visit and always found my mother-in-law already there taking charge of the situation. It was an uncomfortable time for me because it never seemed to occur to her that I should have been the person conferring with Mike’s doctors and discussing potential outcomes with them. It bothered me that she was treating both me and her son like children. The family dynamic felt totally out of whack.
I broke down one day and complained to my mother about the situation. She listened patiently and without voiding my feelings, she noted that since Mike was my mother-in-law’s only child it was quite natural for her to be invested in his care. She noted that our concern for Mike should not become a contest between two women who loved him. She suggested that for Mike’s comfort it was important that I understand how frightening the situation was for everyone and be willing to step back and allow his mother to handle it the way it made her feel best. She reminded me that I needed to be the adult in the room.
The dynamic between grown “children” and their parents can be difficult. Loving concerns have the potential of turning into battles for independence and even dominance. Letting go of the parenting role can be incredibly hard. Passing the baton of leadership to the next generation can be almost impossible for some parents. Knowing when to step in and when to simply watch in silence it tricky. I learned in that moment the importance of respecting the feelings of my mother-in-law. It did not diminish my role as Mike’s wife to allow her to focus her entire being on her son. I instead decided to spend more time with my children, reassuring them that we were all going to be okay in the end.
Since that time I have twice had to step into the role of caretaker for a parent. The first time around it was my mother who came to live with us in her final year and a half of life. I saw then how maddening it was for her to let go of being the parent while I administered her medications and created a new routine for her. The conflicts were many, but we always settled down once I remembered to deal with the situation with less demand and more finesse and understanding of how she was feeling.
Now I have spent almost eight months with Mike’s father living in our home. At times it is wonderfully comfortable, but the strangeness of the dynamic rears its head again and again. In his mind he is supposed to be the head of the household, the adult, the caretaker. In ours, we are responsible for him and this is our house. The push and pull is a delicate balance and once again I often find myself giving in to my father-in-law because I understand how horrible this must be for him. None of us want to be treated like children.
I read today that there are probably fifty two million households in which traditional roles are reversed. Adult children are caring for their parents and often their own children as well. There is a great deal of love involved, but also much tension. Finding the balance that works for everyone takes compromise and sometimes, as my mother taught me, one person has to be willing to lead the way. This is what we do out of love.