“Letting go does not mean you stop caring. It means you stop trying to force others to.”–– Mandy Hale
Being a caregiver doesn’t come naturally for everyone, and there’s a lot to learn. About your mother and her illness, but most of all, about yourself. Your lessons may be different from mine, but I wish I’d known more back then. If my experience helps you to get through this challenging time of caretaking for your critical parent even a little, I haven’t wasted my time on this article.
Lessons Learned During Mom’s Illness
#1 Dependence on others is a huge challenge for an elderly person.
Mom was a problem-solver for everyone she knew — family, friends, and neighbors. Helping others helped her feel important, indispensable, probably even alive. Her entire life, she tried to prove she was worthy, just as she had done growing up. Her little sister was her parents’ favorite, and to compensate, Mom doubled up on studying. She became an achiever and a perfectionist to get their attention and love. Being intelligent and knowledgeable kept her self-esteem high. She took care of Dad for more than a decade when he was slowly dying from Alzheimer’s. When her elderly mother needed care, she also looked after her. And she couldn’t help but offer help to a neighbor whenever they needed it. It was heartbreaking to watch, and I was angry with her for not taking care of herself.
Just three years after my dad passed away, Mom became this ill, dependent person, just like the ones she used to take care of, and this transition was painful. It made her angry and even more discordant than usual. Understanding what was happening to her helped me grow compassion, be more patient, and stay.
#2 Blood is thicker than water.
Most of us who grew up with complicated, mentally ill, or abusive parents couldn’t share what we were going through. People wouldn’t understand or even listen — they didn’t know the person we were describing.
When Mom died, a friend of hers told me that she knew my mother’s dark side. She saw how Mom treated co-workers below her; she felt sorry for my dad and me. For the first time, I felt that there were people who saw through Mom’s façade. I wasn’t crazy after all; I didn’t imagine all this! And I was grateful that she told me.
Surprisingly, though, this nice feeling soon disappeared. I became defensive and protective over my difficult mom when someone talked about her shortcomings. I felt like, “You know what? She is still my mom. It’s easy to slander her behind her back now that she’s gone, but where were you earlier when I needed support?” That was the end of those conversations — I stopped them once and for all. I’d passed with Mom through the fire and flames; I knew who she was, and only I have the right to talk about her this way.
#3 Showing vulnerability at the right moment.
After years of fighting, mutual anger, and rejection, I lost my hope of ever reaching Mom. Then, suddenly, things changed for both of us. At the peak of her mental decline, Mom became softer and kinder to me. I took a chance and lowered my defences. To my astonishment, she responded by becoming the mother I’d wanted her to be my whole life — attentive, emotionally responsive, and loving. It felt like layers of other personalities that had built up inside Mom over the years fell, and the authentic person stepped forward for the first time since she was a little girl. And that brought inner peace and mutual forgiveness to both of us.
Mom told me that she loved me for the first time I could remember. And I accepted her for the complicated, traumatized, and sad person she was. I felt sorry that she was unable to stop being angry and be kind to herself and us instead. But she didn’t dare to accept and love herself. Without that, how could she show us her love? So, when that unexpected change in Mom happened, I’m glad that I opened up. It gave us a chance to build a bridge towards forgiveness.
#4 When an apology is in order.
Nobody is perfect — not your mom, nor you. And certainly not me. As grownups, we can’t avoid making our own mistakes. We do or say things worthy of an apology to our parents, too. When I was mature enough to recognize how much I needed to apologize to my parents, it was too late for my dad, but I asked Mom to forgive me. I never expected that my apologies would give Mom a chance to tell me how sorry she was for hurting me. That brought us closer to each other than ever before.
Today, I know that I have done (and not done) things that I should apologize to my mother for, and every time I remember something, I ask her to forgive me. I hope that, somehow, she hears me.
#5 Mom was not just my tormentor but my teacher, too.
At first sight, it’s clear that my mother caused me suffering and pain, but when I look at the situation more deeply, I know she also taught me lessons of humility and compassion. Thanks to her, I understand the complexity of people beyond the diagnosis, psychopathologies, and theories I learned in university. She was the boulder blocking my path—the one I tried to remove at first, then got closer and studied instead. The boulder was hard on the outside, but soft and alive inside. In this way, I learned to appreciate this human being and admire her metamorphosis.
Today, I’m grateful for these lessons, for the opportunity to be with Mom, and for the final chord of our relationship. I’m grateful for love.
#6 There is a scared little girl behind the curtain.
Every time Mom attacked me, I felt like a little girl facing a monster. Scared and helpless, barely able to think, just hoping it would be over soon. I wanted to run far away and never come back.
I’m glad that I stayed because, in time, I learned that inside that monster lived a scared little girl very similar to mine. As a kid, Mom felt lonely and fearful, and she believed that nobody loved her as she was, so she never knew how to love and accept herself. Competing for her parents’ love with her little sister, she became a perfectionist and overachiever.
I understood that Mom loved us the only way she knew how, and it was painful, but she suffered too. Seeing that sad, lonely little girl instead of a screaming adult helped me to let her assaults go and even communicate with that girl inside. “Mom, you make me scared when you shout like this. Please, don’t.” Sometimes it helped; other times, I had to leave and try again later.
#7 Empathy is the key to unlocking a path to a better relationship.
My mom used to complain all the time. Something was always wrong, mostly with me. It seemed I never could be good enough for her, no matter how much I tried.
Are you nodding in recognition?
Yes, I took my mother’s complaints and critiques of me personally. It was only much later when I looked deeper that I realized that, more often than not, she was complaining about something else. Beyond her hurtful words could be a feeling of not being seen or heard, of being ignored, fearful, or lonely. And because she never learned how to cope with these painful feelings as a mature adult, she resorted to a familiar way of criticizing and/or complaining.
Making an effort to understand what lay beyond Mom’s displeasure allowed me to feel empathy and respond to her real feelings, not her behavior. For example, by letting her know that I heard her and took her seriously: “I hear you, Mom. And I understand that you worry about moving to a nursing home/how important this is for you.” Or: “I feel sorry that you are feeling this way. Would you like to talk about it? I’m here to listen.”
Did it always work? No, but when it did, we had a good time.
I hope that sharing my experiences resonates with you, and can help you through your own caregiving situation. Any questions? Just send me an email, and I’ll be happy to help.
In Part Three, I’ll share self-care tips to survive and thrive while caring for your demanding, abusive parent. See you soon.
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This series really resonates with me. I have always had a deep, secretive feeling that if my parents would just pass away, everything would be easier. Along with that feeling I feel guilty and believe I’m a bad daughter and person to think such a thing. I really liked the spin on the thinking to be, “what did I learn from them.” My parents are just entering the elderly phase and their stress and anxiety is already causing big complications. I’ve been very worried about how to navigate this road and still keep boundaries in place. I have only just recently started to create boundaries, which has been a game changer. Thank you
Thank you for your comment. I’m happy to hear that my article resonates with you. I hope that the next, final part will be helpful, too. As to your secret thoughts, it’s not a crime to wish or feel something that may feel a bit “off.” We are humans, meaning we all have these thoughts once in a while, but we are not forced to act on them. It will not be easy, but no matter what, keep your boundaries strong – you take care of them, and they will take care of you.