I’m a planner. I always have been. I need to know what I’m doing next week, next month, and next year. With age, the idea of uncertainty has become less unsettling. I’d love to say I figured out the beauty of flexibility on my own, but I didn’t. My kids and my mother taught me that. With two little ones, and an aging mother who needs me more and more with each day, my lack of flexibility has become a thing of the past, and I have learned to just go with the flow—even when the flow hurts.
You see, no matter how much we plan for in our lives, few of us really plan for what our lives will look like when our parents end up leaning on us instead of us leaning on them. In theory, we know that our parents will age. We all get that part. However, most of us don’t think about how they will age. We all dream of having parents who age gracefully, doing most things on their own until they die peacefully in their sleep at 95. Maybe they’ll need us to run an occasional errand or two, but surely they won’t need us for much more. And even if we have the good sense to realize that this dream of ours is bogus, we still don’t accept the fact that them needing us will completely shift our lives. We also don’t realize that the shift is as challenging for them as it is for us.
My mother grew up in poverty on the island of Haiti. With not even a high school education, she made her way to the United States and had two children who both ended up earning master’s degrees. Indeed, she did well with her life. Growing up I viewed her as a rock. Nothing could shake her, and weakness was something she seemed unfamiliar with. That said, watching her health slowly deteriorate once I entered adulthood was a tough pill for me to swallow. I can only imagine what swallowing that pill was like for her.
Over the years, she’s tried her best to accept her new normal, and has continued her quest for a happy life—a quest that is far more challenging than she ever imagined. I have watched her struggle, and I began to struggle, too, because of my love for her. On the outside, I remain strong because I know she needs that from me, but internally, some days are a challenge. Watching someone you love lose what they once cherished most—their independence—is painful.
Today, I am in my mid-thirties with a husband and two young kids. My mother is twice my age and still holding strong, but she has struggled over the years. From depression to a stroke to epilepsy to recently fracturing her shoulder—life has been no walk in the park for her. And sure, some people have it a lot worse, while others have it a lot better. I know that. That is the way of the world. But, I also know how our struggle feels to us, and for us, it can be hard.
I know that as a caregiver, it’s hard to please everyone and dropping the ball is inevitable—particularly when you are part of a small family and support is limited and not local. I also know that my desire to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams makes this all ten times harder, and some days giving up on those dreams and sticking to the perceived safety of a 9-5 job seems like the logical thing to do. Thank God my mom did not raise a fool, and I know that giving up on what God placed in my heart because of what He placed on my plate would be foolish. Reaching my goals may take longer than I anticipated, and I am okay with that. I cheer others on as they reach their dreams, knowing that my time will come, too. I just have to stay the course.
So how do I take care of myself while balancing everything? It’s hard. I give it my best shot, though. I write a lot because writing cleanses my soul. I take long, hot showers because they bring me a sense of calm. I roll around on the floor with my kids—often—because those moments fill my heart up with immense joy. I exercise when I can because I have a strong family history of strokes and I have no interest in having one… ever. I laugh with my mom when I feel like crying because I know she needs to see my laughter far more than my tears. I lean on friends, both old and new, because their encouragement and love sustain me. I pray and ask for prayers because the power of prayer is immeasurable. And, most importantly, I hold on to my dreams as if I need them to survive. I know that letting go will cause a slow and painful death, and since I plan to die with love in my heart and a smile on my face, holding on seems to be my only choice.
Being a caregiver is hard work and for each of us the circumstances are different depending on our personal responsibilities, the level of care our parent needs and how much support we have in our lives. But I urge all of my fellow caregivers to hold strong. Be kind to yourself. Few people understand what your days look like or the heaviness you carry in your heart at times. And because few people get it, it’s really up to you to make this work. Seek help, lean on others, and hold on to your dreams. You have to make this work in a way that protects your soul.
If there is anything I have learned by caring for my mom, it’s that neglecting all of who I am won’t serve her, my children, or my husband well, and it certainly won’t do anything for me. Regardless of how many people need me, there is no greater failure than failing to care for myself.