Wednesday, October 3, 2007

On the parents

For weeks I've been wanting, inspired by Casaubon's Book of course, to write about something very hard, and very big. It doesn't seem that way now, but it will be. I've had to talk to to my husband about it and figure out whether we're on the same page. It turns out that, for the most part, we are.

The fact of the matter is unless something catastrophic and sudden happens, we're going to end up having to take one of our parents in. Between us we have four parents (and two steps) -- all still living, primarily thriving. My parents aren't even at 60 yet. With me at 30 it suddenly seems like my parents and I are in the same age group: Adults.

But the fact remains they're 30 years older than I am, and my husband's parents are 30 years older-plus than he is. At some point they're going to get infirm and have to have some help.

I'm the only child, and my dad isn't remarried. For him, I AM the help. For my mom, she's in a little better position because she's married to a guy younger than she is. But he leads a high-risk life -- drives for a living, and rides motorcycles for a hobby. They both smoke. My dad smoked for more than 30 years. Whether my stepdad manages to keep himself safe or not, the odds are good, just on my side, that my husband and I are going to end up with one of my parents when we're all older.

And I have had to get my head around this.

I won't quote Sharon at length at you. You've probably read the post -- but the salient bits go like this. We, people in my age group, are scared to death of the idea of ever co-housing with someone who isn't our partner or our child. This used to be a pretty common practice, but the gods of marketing and "lifestyle" have said we deserve, we NEED, our privacy and our space -- above all, our privacy. Even from our siblings or their kids. Even from the people who lived with US, sheltering us for 18 years of our lives.

I have felt this way. I've thought, There's no way, absolutely no way I can live with one of my parents. Noway, nohow. One of us won't make it out alive, to say nothing of my marriage. I had been dreading having to tell them they can't come, and explaining why.

Now I can't explain it even to myself. It's a culture of isolation, a culture of selfishness I've grown up in, that makes the idea of my parents (or just one parent) moving in so terrifying. I even get along with my parents. They aren't psycho, they aren't abusive. They have their quirks. My parents are described as characters, unusual, good hearted, and hip. They were hippies, after all -- my mom was in the first wave -- and now I can't trust them to be good living partners?

It comes down to a case of trust. It goes like this: When I was growing up my parents were overprotective. Whose weren't? I had a great time in high school. I had a social, romantic and even sex life despite the fact that I had to call home whenever I got to my destination if it was away from home; despite the fact I was held to a curfew; despite the fact that my parents didn't want me to hang around with drug dealers; and despite the overwhelming, obsessive worry that sometimes crept into their interactions with me. This last is what I haven't trusted to begone now that I'm an adult. Some of this mistrust is borne out; my parents still put on a mild display of panic if I do something they consider unwise or unsafe. I don't like it and I deal with it. When I think about them coming to live with me, I think of that. I think of my mom sitting up waiting for me to come home from a bar when I'm 45, I think of my dad insisting we don't go to a certain restaurant that he didn't like once. I think of this lasting until we -- my husband and I -- end up hoping for a quick exit, either for us or for them.

I think of the worst, and I don't trust them to be adults, and to realize that they're dealing with an adult and not a child when it comes to me. I don't give them credit for adapting, for being the decent humans that they are with brain cells to rub together. I don't know why this is. It's a matter of fear and the fear of being inconvenienced, even for your tribe.

The tribe, the roots ... these are the terms that haven't meant much to me before. I'm close with my family, as small as it is. I'm close with my inlaws, and with my extended family. I'm almost always glad to see any one of them. But I'm also glad for them to go home, so I can have my house back -- my three-bedroom house where nobody cares whether I lie in bed all Saturday reading or not.

People living with me that aren't my husband would take me out of my comfort zone. I would feel like I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, that I had to do things others wanted to do. I would have to sacrifice my personal space. My biggest fear is that I would have to sacrifice, after all these years of living independently, my autonomy. I don't trust my family to let me keep my autonomy.

It really isn't fair to them, is it? They're rational (as rational as anyone else is), yet it's a gripping fear that suddenly I would become the 14-year-old again, even as I was in the position of co-head of household and THEY were in the position of dependents. Does this happen? I don't even know. I don't really know anyone who's let their parents live with them.

That's not true, I do have a friend whose mother got severe Alzheimer's in her early 50s. She lived with our friends for a few years. She didn't even know who was there most of the time, let alone where her kids were coming and going to. I know my friend would have wished his overprotective mother back in a second. She's in a home now because she was requiring more care -- to eat, to be fed, to relieve herself -- than these two working parents with two children, including one disabled, could provide.

But they gave it an honest shot. They didn't turn the woman out for others to care for without trying to see how it worked. I don't know how many years it took off their lives to care for her, but it may have taken more off if they'd never tried.


I don't operate in too many moral absolutes. I've been accused of being too relativist. But I do truly think that it's straight-up wrong to refuse to care for an aging relative just because it wouldn't be much fun, it would be a pain in the ass, it would cramp my style. In my very small (and growing) book of ethics, that's just something I can't contemplate anymore.

Maybe it won't be an issue. I was scared to death when I sat down my husband and said: The reality is that we're likely to have to take in one of our parents. He said: You might be right. I can't remember his exact words, but they weren't "If you do that, I'm out of here." So it's a start that we're both on the same page with that, and with what's right to do by our families, even if the issue never does come up.

I don't want to be a person anymore who would put my all-encompassing comfort over the life and health of someone else, especially someone who wasn't long for this world, especially-especially someone who's an integral part of my life and always has been. And when it comes to me retaining my autonomy and not being forced into a child-role if I'm the caretaker: The fact is this -- I'm an adult and I can call my own shots now as to whether I get treated like one. They will understand that, and I have to trust that. And I have to trust myself to back up these words.

No comments: