I help her bathe and get dressed. I feed her breakfast before I go to work in the mornings, and I check in with the sitter periodically to see how their day is going. I worry if she is getting the proper nutrients to sustain her. When I get home from work, we talk about her day. I make sure she eats dinner and help her prepare for bed. I’m exhausted by the time I get everything done. ,She watches from her chair, as I sweep around her, clean the kitchen, and try to prepare for work the next day. She seems to be oblivious to all the work that goes into caring for her. She doesn’t notice that I’ve had to rearrange my house so she would have a safe and comfortable place to sleep. She doesn’t seem to realize that I’m taking days off every week to tend to her needs. She doesn’t seem to care that I’ve busted my entire budget trying to make sure she can get to where she needs to go. I wish I was talking about my disaffected teenage daughter. Instead, I’m talking about my convalescing mother.
She moved into my home nearly 3 months ago after a serious health scare. She needed a great deal of rehabilitation, and her home was neither safe for her, nor presentable enough to let strangers inside. So I made the difficult decision to move her in with me. Except it isn’t just me. There’s my husband, of course, who was not all that thrilled with the situation, but resigned to it just the same. Then there are my three rambunctious children, who take up all of my time and most of my space.
I suppose I should have seen this coming. My body seems to be falling apart and I am thirty years her junior. Getting old happens to us all, if we’re lucky. You would think that since I work in social services, I would realize that Medicare kicks in at age 65 for a reason. Besides that, we kind of fit the profile. According to www.caregiving.org, the average African-American caregiver is a female who is 44.2 years old, and is caring for 66.3 year old relative. ( I’m a few years younger, and she’s a few years older than that.) This isn’t her first health scare, but it was the first one that ended up in a hospital stay.
Several years ago, she was struck with a mysterious illness that caused her to temporarily lose her sight. She was misdiagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Eventually, that was ruled out, but they never came up with an explanation as to why she went blind temporarily, or what caused her sight to come back. She’s been on blood pressure medication and has carried an asthma inhaler most of her life. Since those two things disproportionately affect our community, I should not have been surprised.
There is a whole range of emotions that comes with the transition to becoming a caregiver. I think my initial reaction was confusion. How could the woman who taught me how to balance a checkbook at the age of 10, not be able to tell me how much money was going in or coming out of her accounts. Bills started going unpaid. Shutoff notices were ignored and eventually her phone was shut off. My mother has had the same phone number from the time I was in Kindergarten until late last year. It was not uncommon for people looking for any one of my siblings or myself to call the phone number we wrote in their yearbooks 20 years ago, and receive the same greeting that they always had. “Hayes residence,” she’d say her voice lilting as if she was asking a question, even though she was making a statement.
I was confused because every Saturday morning, we had to get up to clean the whole house, from the baseboards and floors, to the cobwebs on the ceilings. But somehow, her house has fallen into such disrepair, that we stopped having family meals there. The floors don’t look like they have been cleaned in months and the living room is so cluttered that there is barely a place to sit down. I’m confused because she looks the same, but things are not the same.
I’m not just confused, I’m also tired. It’s not just that I have to start hosting the family dinners now. It’s that I also have to help her in and out of the bathtub. I have to maneuver her equipment in and out of my house. I’m blessed in that my mother is ambulatory for the most part. I don’t have to lift her, unless she falls, and so far that has only happened once. But exhaustion is not always physical. Caregiving takes its toll mentally as well. It’s that I have to schedule and get her to and from all of her appointments. It’s that I have to keep track of her medications, and remember where she put her checkbook. Nevermind the fact that I’m not sure I know where my own checkbook is at the moment. It’s that I have to talk to insurance companies, and customer service agents with whom I have no relationship. It’s that I have to do all of that and still manage my own very busy household. I, like more than a third of all Black caregivers in the United States, have minor children in my care(caregiveractionnetwork.org).
I’m not just confused, and tired. I’m also sad. I’m sad that our mother-daughter lunch dates have become more of a chore than a source of respite. Gone are the days of brunch buffets at the local casino. It’s easier for her to sit down to a bowl of soup that the waitress brings her than to try to balance an overflowing plate and her cane. I’m sad because she dozes off and loses track of time, so she can no longer keep my children. We have to put the home I grew up in on the market to cover the cost of her care. I’m sad because I can’t go to her for advice on how to handle this situation.
I’m angry because I don’t feel like I was given fair warning. Nobody told me what this would look like. I’m sure it’s different for everybody, but I know there are some similarities. She was about my age when her mother got sick. She didn’t tell me about handling my grandmother’s finances or sorting out her affairs. She didn’t tell me about giving up precious vacation days to run errands or to sit in waiting rooms. She didn’t tell me how hard it is to feel helpless, and still have be able to give help.
I want to curl up in a ball and cry to my mommy about being confused and tired and sad and angry. I want her to rub my back and tell me it will all be okay. But today she is looking for that same reassurance from me, and I just don’t have it to give.
A social worker visited my home shortly after my mother moved in. She was checking the home to make sure it was okay, but she was also checking to see if my mother needed additional services I could not provide. After talking with my mom for a while, she told me that while my mother was healing, the roles would be reversed. She pointed me in the direction of some important resources, and then asked me if I got it. “I’ve got it,” I replied. I was lying. That too, is something that is common among black women caregivers. One website, www.caregiving.org says that this subsect of caregivers reported little to no physical or financial stress, and a moderate to low amount of emotional stress as a result of caregiving. I’m three months in and I know that this cannot possibly be true. We are either lying to the researchers, or to ourselves. I suspect a bit of both. There is no way that being a caregiver leaves us unscathed. Some of us have actual battle scars, while others of us have heart wounds that no one will ever see.
I confided in a friend that it feels like I have another kid. “You do, kind of have another kid.” That’s when it hit me. I am mothering my mother and it hurts more than anyone will ever know.
*I wrote this three years ago. Some things have changed and some have not. Mom rallied, and was able to live independently for a while, but since the beginning of 2023, her health has rapidly declined. She mostly uses a wheelchair to get around. She is blind in one eye, and her awful doctor is now saying she does have Multiple Sclerosis. (In my life, I have wanted to fight two doctors. Both of them were supposed to be “caring” for my parents. Neither of them seemed to be very good at their jobs.”
While mom is no longer in my home, she will soon need constant care. I spent a full eight hours yesterday tending to her needs, and I have never been so tired in my life. She has the same amount of medical appointments as my three children this month. It’s 7:39am on a Sunday morning, and I literally just received a text about her most recent test results. On the plus side, she got to enjoy a tea party with four of her seven grandchildren.
I do not know if I have the energy to parent today. I don’t even want to get out of my bed. Of course, neither of these things is really a possibility. I have already ordered groceries, and need to make the calendar for the week. I’ll need to coordinate additional care for mom, and try to find an assisted living or nursing facility that is private pay that she can afford. I have to pray that the nurse we’ve hired to come in a few days a week doesn’t quit, and that my aunt who is there on the nurse’s off days stays healthy enough to continue.
Today is Mother’s Day, so I’m going to enjoy a mimosa, or several. I’m going to hug and kiss my children, and I’m going to be grateful for the privilege of still being able to call my mother, even though, now she is the one calling me.
If Mother’s Day is a struggle for you, please know that you are not alone. Treat yourself well today, even and especially, if nobody else does.
Happy Mother’s Day!
One thought on “Mothering my Mother”
Oh my. I had no idea. You all are in my prayers always. Thank you for sharing!