As the mother of a 28 year-old daughter on the autism spectrum, I will always be a caretaker.
When Samantha was born 7 weeks early, I promised her that if she just kept breathing, I would help with everything else. That was before the diagnosis of autism and developmental delays. I have kept my promise to support my daughter through all of her challenges—no matter how exhausting for both of us. My love for her is so much bigger and stronger than any sadness or anger about my life going in a different direction than I would have chosen. Love makes everything easier or at least possible. After all, I did choose to marry and have children.
But I did NOT choose my mother. The cliché about being able to choose your friends but not your family is absolutely true. As a baby boomer and only child, I was raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s in a parent centered home where I was expected to take care of myself as much as possible. The message was: achieve high grades, go to a top college, get a respectable job (for a while) and then get married. My needs and desires were supposed to be secondary to living up to my parents’ dreams and standards. I kept up my end of the bargain. More than that, I was determined to become the mother I never had and put my children first in a way I never experienced during my own childhood. Like many other baby boomer parents, I became a helicopter mom (but NOT a snow plough) when raising my twins. There’s no sacrifice my husband and I wouldn’t make to help our son or daughter.
Sadly, I don’t feel that same sense of love for my mother. Taking care of Mom is an obligation I seek to minimize. I do my duty by my Mom but I can’t help remembering how she stole my allowance when I was a little girl and tried to make me feel guilty when I asked her to pay it back. My mom chose to spend our family’s income on designer clothes and fancy jewelry, until one day there was no money left to pay for my senior year at college. In high school, I spent Thanksgiving alone because my parents were invited on a free trip to Florida. When I got sick on my 25th birthday, my parents celebrated at a fancy restaurant while I coughed and ran a fever alone at home. I could tell you more: about how my Mom competed with me for my Dad’s approval and attention. I could tell you how she criticized me for being “big boned” and said my legs were too heavy for a mini-skirt, or how she got sarcastic and short with me when I needed her empathy.
I also want to tell you that my mom enjoyed a wonderful, extravagant life with my dad, whom she loved dearly. However, Dad passed away almost 30 years ago, leaving her dead broke. Now my mother is 92, desperately poor, deaf and alone. I feel really, really sorry for her. But do I feel that it’s my responsibility to sacrifice my own needs or the needs of my children in order to make her as comfortable as she feels she deserves to be? Often, I feel torn between the competing needs of my family members, a charter member of the sandwich generation.
I will not allow her to starve, freeze or live without television or an air conditioner. I buy her groceries regularly and also supply other necessities such as a down coat, a comforter and window shades. Mom joins my family to celebrate the major holidays: her birthday, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I even take her to lunch on my birthday. I call her almost every day and listen to her complaints about how miserable and alone she is. Now and then she criticizes me and my children for not being more attentive to HER. She doesn’t understand why she’s not the center of attention. “Why we can’t be a family?” she laments at the restaurant for a holiday dinner. (!?!) Nothing I do is enough for her.
Perhaps I’m not the best or most forgiving daughter. My mother’s friends would say I’m selfish (but of course they haven’t heard my side of the story). I’m now in my early 60s, and if I don’t do my writing and take care of MYSELF I will NEVER get to be the person I want to be. If I spend more time and money on my mother, there will be less for the future of my daughter with autism and less for Howard and me in our old age. My husband and I need to save enough money to take care of Samantha after we are gone and enough for ourselves, so that we don’t end up like my mom. In other words, my husband and I need to take care of ourselves and each other.
After my recent breast cancer scare (Breast and Worst Adventure, 8/14/19) http://margueriteelisofon.com/2019/08/breast-worst-adventure.html
I realize how precious my time is. I need to take care of myself and enjoy my life as much as possible while I’m still healthy and strong. I want to dance and write and be a game-changer for my talented daughter and others like her in the autism world.
It’s my turn to choose how much time and energy I spend taking care of others. Some people may think my choices are selfish. At 63, I find myself caring less and less what others think of me and more about what I think. What do I want to accomplish? What will my legacy be? How do I become my best self before it’s too late?