“You’re mother should come live with you,” the doctor said, “Why isn’t she getting out more? You don’t call her every day?”
“I travel a lot,” I stammered. “My sister calls her every day.”
He proceeded to tell me about a seminar he attended, at Harvard he noted, about the importance of socialization for the elderly. My chest started to tighten. I wanted to scream at him, “If you cared so much about the elderly, you’d stop lecturing me and find a way to help me help her.” But I didn’t want to upset my mother, so I just sat there.
Then he pried into my life. “Why do you travel? What do you do for work? What about your husband? How many kids do you have? Do you have any brothers? How much do you travel? What do you do?” I was waiting for, “Why do you work,” but he stopped short of asking me that.
As he was questioning me my brain went into self-defense mode. “I need to work. I’m the sole breadwinner. I have two kids who want to see more of me. This doctor knows nothing about my life and I am doing the best I can.”
But another part kicked into self-defeat. “I suppose I don’t need to excel at work; maybe we can get by on less money. Maybe my kids are fine without me; they have their father and I can spend time with them when they’re older and my parents are gone.”
As the author of a book about the challenges working mothers face, I was aware of the research that said one in three mothers want to quit work after having a baby. Personally, I never wanted to quit working because of my children. But I have because of my parents. If my family didn’t need my salary, I would have emailed my boss my resignation right from that doctor’s office.
That morning, I had woken at 5: 30 to send emails and finish an assignment, saw the kids off to school, and was in the car by 8 a.m. for the hour plus drive to my mother’s house, during which I dictated a writing assignment into my iPhone. My mother wasn’t ready when I got to her house; she had overslept and there was no way we were going to make our 10 a.m. appointment. Luckily, the doctor was able to see us at 11 but now my schedule was pushed back by an hour.
Post doctor’s visit I took my mother out to lunch, stopped at the pharmacy for a new prescription, helped my father retrieve his computer password and assured him yes, I could schedule and take him to a checkup too. I drove home, filed my post, and headed out to an evening commitment. I’m not sure if it was irony, the universe’s twisted sense of humor, or mere coincidence that I was keynoting an event for new mothers and my speech was about how to balance work and family, manage competing priorities, and avoid guilt as a working mother. But there I was not knowing how to do any of those things as a working daughter.
How would I? Unlike a new mother who is usually bombarded with advice from mostly well-meaning friends, colleagues, and family members, caregivers usually have to build support systems from scratch. New caregivers aren’t thrown a shower where friends and family serve cake and give you gifts. New mothers have Mommy & Me classes, Mom’s Night Out, and mother’s groups at work, where they can swap stories and advice. Last I checked, there were no Me & Mommy classes where caregivers gathered with their aging parents for singing, socialization, and sympathy.
Maybe there should be. According to Pew Research, in the United States, the population of seniors is expected to slightly more than double, from 41 to 86 million by mid-century. It will be family caregivers who are called upon to support these seniors. Working daughters, and sons, need help balancing career and caregiving. Quitting their jobs is not the solution. A national conversation, flexible workplaces, and doctors who respect and treat family members as part of the care equation are. Working daughters, and sons, need help balancing career and caregiving. Click To Tweet
Last month, I took my father to the doctor – his third appointment in a week. “I’m lucky you have the kind of job that let’s you take time off to care for me,” he said. “I don’t Dad,” I thought to myself. “But I need one.” We all need one.
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