Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Last year this time I entered a whole new chapter in my life where all of a sudden I was taking care of my parents because our mam needed high risk back surgery and our dad has been dependent on her because of paralysis in his legs.
First there was an emergency move to a smaller apartment, then the preparation for the surgery, the surgery itself, the care after and then it was suddenly August 2019 and a whole year had passed. By the way in case you do not know me yet, I am a self-employed trainer and coach so of course I did also work while doing all of this, I just did not spend any time on social media or started projects of my own.
Why am I sharing about this new chapter in my life? Especially because it is probably not the story my ideal customer wants to read.
My reasons are twofold:
1. Michelle Obama believes stories are what connects us so this is me connecting to everyone who is in a similar chapter of their life and could use a reminder that they are not alone and maybe could learn something from my experience.
2. If there is one thing that is wrapped in both vulnerability and shame (not good enough messages anyone?) then it is care taking of your parents. They took care of you first so they are the people who not just set the standard but made the standard. And now it is time for them to accept your help, while just minutes ago (in their mind) you were dependent on them. So of course you are going to get a lot of ‘not good enough’ messages from them and experience a lot of shame. At least I did and if there is one things shame cannot stand it is having words wrapped around it. So this is me wrapping the shame connected to taking care of your parents in words in the hope that it will help you navigate this shame swamp more elegantly than I did.
I am not going to go into the details of my story because that would take forever and would be boring as hell.
I just want to share 5 of my key lessons with you:
1. This chapter in life is one that everyone who is lucky enough to have parents who get old(er) is going to enter and stay in. It is also a chapter that people barely talk about. When I asked my friends, who are older than I am, for a reason, this was their answer: ‘because it is hard to navigate and even harder to talk about’. I agree and I also think that comparative suffering plays a big part in it. Comparative suffering is when I compare what I am experiencing with what you are going through and decide your suffering is worse. Of course loosing your mam is worse than taking care of her after surgery and because I decide my suffering is small in comparison to yours I don’t share or I don’t reach out to you or other people for support or advice. Brené Brown is very clear on the fact that comparative suffering is BS because first of all there is enough suffering for all of us so we don’t need to compare and second there is also enough empathy for all of us. I can be with you when you loose your mam and support you in grieving while you can support me in grieving that life as our family knew it has ended and we haven’t found our new balance yet. We can in other words be there for each other when we are willing to share our story with each other and don’t let false comparison stop us from connecting.
2. Self-care is key. I am a hardcore introvert who slept for almost 2 months on a couch while both of my parents passed by several times a night. So I did not have any private space to recharge my battery nor did I get a single night of uninterrupted sleep. Did I go home after those 2 months to sleep for 3 weeks? No, I went back to work and the care taking became a free time thing. Needless to say my body did not agree and shut me down numerous times. What did I learn from this in terms of self-care? You need to set boundaries beforehand and stick to them. About 3 weeks after the surgery I started going home for 24 hours once a week so I could sleep in my own bed for at least one night and even though it did cost me a lot of energy in terms of traveling it did keep me both sane and functioning for the rest of the week. I should have done it earlier and for more time. Also set clear boundaries with and for work. I didn’t and in retrospect I wish I had. If you can take time off, do it because you will thank yourself for it later. It is important to have and keep your friends and I really wish I had had a conversation with all of them beforehand about what was going on and how they could support me. I did with some of them and it made a world of difference.
3. You need to become a hard conversation master without training in it. I don’t know what it is like in other countries but in Belgium healthcare itself is good, the system around it very hard to deal with. It took me, just to give you an example, more than a month, an endless stream of emails and numerous calls to get answers to the questions what our mam needed to do to get ready for the surgery and what care she would need afterwards. She was in a wheelchair, in excruciating pain and scared, so needless to say she was not going to ask these questions over and over again herself and she got really frustrated when I was not able to give her answers when she needed them. It takes a lot of practice both in listening and in being both assertive and empathic (at the same time) to navigate situations like that. What I have also noticed is that when someone is in that amount of pain and fear, they are in some sort of tunnel where they are focused on their basic needs and it is very hard to reach them there. I am sure there are some interesting theories about it out there and probably also professionals who know exactly how to deal with it! I just did not meet any of them in all those months. The doctors and nurses actually depended on me to reach mam and get them the information they needed to treat her both before and after the surgery. That makes me wonder first of all how you get the care you need if you don’t have a daughter with you who advocates for you and second what kind of ‘how to talk to your patients’ training health care professionals get in Belgium. In any case, this is a chapter in your life where you are going to have conversations with your parents about topics you never imagined and deal with emotions both in them and you, you did not know existed. I really wish I could tell you there is a course for it but if there is, I haven’t found it yet. I am really grateful I got coaching training and I understand vulnerability and how to deal with it because that really helped me a lot.
4. Get ready for a clash of values and the hard conversations connected to that. A value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important according to Brené Brown It is important to know your values so you can live them. I have done quite some values work both as a co-active coach and in the Daring Way training (the work and research of Brené Brown) so I know my two core values are connection and courage which means that when things get tough for someone I love, I show up and help, also when it is hard. The tricky part is that since you are taking care of your parents you probably have certain values in common that are not obvious. They are the values you have (probably) never talked about before but that now are going to clash like two icebergs under the water. For my mam and me the icebergs clashing were about ‘independence’ in the sense that she wants to be independent and does not want to accept outside help and that I want to be independent and in order for that to work I need her to accept outside help so I can do my own thing again. Do you see the clash? Do you now understand what I mean with hard conversations about topics you never saw coming?
5. What is possible from here? That question has been my lifeline throughout this process. I think we can safely assume that neither our parents nor us, their children, want to be in a place where they are dependent on us and our willingness to help and yet we are all going to end up in that space if we are lucky enough to grow old together. You can try to fight it from both sides and it is neither going to work nor help. So the sooner you accept that you have entered a new chapter in your life that is here to stay, the better. That does not mean it is easy! It means you need to let go of the previous chapter and the expectations you had of your parents and yourself in that chapter and that takes time. It took me a full year to get there. What helped me in the process was first of all accepting the situation I was in (instead of trying to fight it) and then asking myself ‘what is possible from here?’. No, I cannot travel the weeks after the surgery but how about facilitating an online book club? No, I don’t have the energy to go out to dinner with that friend but would she be up for talking to me online instead? No, I cannot go back to the life I had in the first half of 2018 but how can I make the fall of 2019 fulfilling and joyful? Still in the process of answering that last one… :-)
I honestly think the last year has been one of the most challenging and fulfilling in my life. Being there for the people I love when they needed me the most was what I chose to do and I would do it again. I am writing this because I feel it is a chapter of life we need to talk and share more openly and honestly about. So consider this my contribution to starting the conversation and if you have questions about it or you want to talk to me about it, please comment below. Really curious to see what impact this post it going to have…
Take good care of yourself and the people you love and have a great weekend!