Hard Lessons in Setting Limits

From Dutiful Daughter to Self-Aware Caregiver

Katy Butler

When I was a teenager, my mother and I were mirror opposites: both in love with the same distant and preoccupied man, and each brilliant in realms in which the other could barely cope. I aced my SATs, discussed Dickens with my father at dinner, and skipped two grades. She, by contrast, couldn't spell or balance a checkbook.

Sometimes, on weekends, I'd cook fudge in her kitchen and then retreat to my bedroom as she sponged off the cabinets and shouted up the stairs, "Everything I touch is sticky!" Occasionally she'd insist I wash the dishes and then redo them herself to fix imperfections I couldn't see. I once found a letter from her to my father (who was often away doing research): "Katy has been awful, but she always was your child, anyway." When I asserted my independence, or cooked myself special things, or escaped into the arms of boys, or failed to intuit what she needed, she called me selfish. I wrote, "I hate her!" in my diary, which she found and read.

Yet beneath my hatred, I craved her love a craving that had begun with the births of my two younger brothers, and possibly before. When I was a very young child, she'd given me paints and encouraged me to draw; she'd shown me rabbits and helped me build houses for the fairies in the autumn woods. I hungered for that lost, intimate world, and my hunger, long subterranean, didn't end when I graduated from college and fled my parents' home for California.

I made new friends, got a job, took up running, married and divorced, and learned to dress. Over time, my mother and I put down our swords and grew warily closer, even though or because we lived on opposite sides of the continent. I spent my working days in clattering newsrooms and small rented offices. I interviewed Richard Nixon, picked stocks, negotiated leases, translated neuroscience into kitchen-table English for The New York Times, and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. But the drycleaner hemmed my pants, a woman from Guatemala cleaned my house, and I never raised a sentient being more complex than a ficus tree.

Then, five years ago, my 79-year-old father had a stroke, and my family entered a new life stage. Every family wound I thought I'd outgrown and every trusted defense that had seemed to work emerged again, carrying with it danger, and an opportunity for redemption.

On an October morning in 2001, my father, a retired university professor, had collapsed on my parents' kitchen floor in Connecticut, making burbling sounds. When my mother called me in tears, something primitive rose up from my core, pushing me onto a plane and straight to the hospital where my father lay. (My two brothers stayed put in California.) Six weeks later, when my father returned home, I flew out again and found my mother a caregivers' support group, a gerontological social worker, a doctor who specialized in medical catastrophe, and an elder lawyer.

Now I watch her struggle with ambiguous loss (my father isn't quite alive and not quite dead) and unending physical caretaking. He can no longer take a shower unaided, and he struggles to complete a sentence. He's becoming her child, and she in some ways is becoming mine.

Trying on a New Role

Today I supervise my parents' investments long-distance and have legal control of half their money. I fly home when I can and worry when I can't. I nudge my mother to hire more home help. I send my dad letters with little drawings in the margins and look forward to the ones he sends back, written in a cramped, spidery hand. Sometimes when I've visited from California, tears have filled my mother's eyes and she's taken my hand in a soft, unfamiliar way. "If only you lived closer . . . in Boston," she'll say. She wears her white hair loosely now, gathered at the nape of her neck. She's still beautiful to me, and still nerve-wracking and entrancing.

Her words are a version of what I've wanted to hear her say all my life. For a moment, I'll wish I could respond like the selfless spinsters I used to read about in Victorian novels that army of "eldest unmarried daughters" who stayed home through the long years of their parents' dying. But I can't do that. I've been on my own too long, and going far away had been my way of coping with worlds of family pain. Yet much to my surprise, and despite the strains, I've found the role of dutiful daughter far more gratifying than I'd expected. I'm grateful I can help. I'm amazed I want to.

I've become an accidental inheritor of a long tradition of unpaid female altruism, without which most families would collapse when they hit black ice. At first, this altruism flowed into the channels that wounding had laid down in my childhood, outside conscious awareness. As time has passed, I've found that I've had to dig new channels for that stream. If I hadn't, I'd have ended up sacrificing my own life my livelihood, my dreams, my friends, my relationship with my man, and my sanity-preserving walks in the mountains. To behave in a consistently loving way, I've had to confront my mother and my brothers, to stand up for myself, and to accept my limits.

This is the story of how I've muddled my way, over the past five years, between two well-trod pathways for women's lives. One is the path my mother has followed: the ancient tradition of female, home-centered self-sacrifice, in which such notions as saying no, talking about money, and having boundaries are irrelevant, if not immoral. If I'd taken this path, I'd have drowned. The other is the feminist road I'd taken for nearly 40 years: going out into the world to earn a livelihood, expressing myself creatively, and living a self-actualized life. If I'd chosen to follow the second path slavishly, I'd have denied my deepest emotional bonds, and I couldn't have lived with myself. I've had to learn when to say yes, when to say no, when to ask for help, and when to draw the line.

The Perils of Aiming for Sainthood

Visiting home the year after the stroke, I found my father sitting uselessly in the living room, stripped of all the markers of his professional adulthood. Gone were his wallet, his belt, his car keys, the ID from the university where he used to teach, and his watch. Using strategies I'd gleaned from my 20 years of writing about psychotherapy and behavior change, I didn't reproach my mother, as I once might have. Instead I quietly took him on a drive to check out local swimming pools, signed him up with a community van service, and bought him a waterproof plastic watch. The first two mornings, I drove him to the pool and swam while he did water exercises. The next two mornings, I rode with him in the Red Cross van to the pool. The following two mornings, I put him on the van and drove separately to the pool to meet him.

When my mother couldn't sleep, I was the one who looked up her medications in the Physician's Desk Reference and had trouble sleeping myself. When her first financial adviser (whom she'd hired in a panic) mistakenly sold a chunk of high-interest bonds, I chewed my nails in California, diplomatically eased my mother toward firing the woman, and finally helped her choose someone more reliable. It wasn't easy: my mother and I were beginning to negotiate a major intergenerational shift. She wasn't sure of my competence I've never been good at details and though she wanted my help, she didn't want to share power with me. I'd volunteered for a position of "high responsibility and low control," the classic recipe for stress.

Then my father had another stroke. Not long after that, the honeymoon between my mother and me ended. I came for a visit, got the flu, and extended my stay until I got on her nerves. Just as I had as a teenager, I cooked special dishes for myself in her kitchen; I borrowed a pair of socks and returned them without washing them. Finally, irritated by my small thoughtlessnesses, she stood on her doorstep and shouted that I was "selfish, excessive, and disgusting." I could have been a teenager again, standing in the cold, tears filling my eyes. There on the doorstep, as alive as ever, were my ancient angers and griefs: my craving for my mother's love and my fury at not getting it.

Hard Lessons in Setting Limits

After that, I didn't talk to her for months. I even flew East on business without telling her. On a train from Boston to New York, I heard the conductor call out Meriden, the station five miles from my parents' home. I sat there with my stomach in knots, but I didn't get off.

I'd been running virtually nonstop, trying to be the Platonic ideal of a dutiful daughter, ignoring my need for basic courtesy and respect, let alone love. Now my very body was rebelling. But I didn't yet have the language in which to do things another way with my mother. I was still afraid of her. I didn't know how to set a limit without blowing up or piling on reproaches.

As I began to read and interview experts, I quickly got relief from my delusion that I was the first dutiful daughter to seethe with rage at parents who were living through a daily tragedy. Psychologist Barry Jacobs, a medical family therapist and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers told me that ambivalence comes with the territory. "I worry about the people who aren't ambivalent," he said when I interviewed him. "I'm sure there are people out there who are happily selfless, but more commonly, people adopt a selfless stance because they think they're supposed to. They wind up burning out over time."

A few months later, my mother sent me some newspaper clippings and then a letter and a book. She'd surmised that I'd been East, and hinted that she missed me. One day, I called her. Another day, she obliquely suggested she'd learned something from my long absence. That Christmas I went to visit. Nothing was said, but something power, for want of a better word had subtly shifted. The financial adviser I'd chosen was working out well, mother said. My parents had settled into a manageable, though constricted, rhythm, watching more videos and taking slower walks. She didn't squawk when I cooked my own dishes. A week later, reconciled and relieved, I flew back to my writing, my mountain, and my man.

The final stage of my parents' lives is bringing about reconfigurations and reconciliations that I never would have predicted. Not long before my mother resumed her lonely life with my dad, she and my brother, Michael, and I went walking down a long California beach. After the sun set, we dropped in at a terrific restaurant, and there we were, sitting in front of a gas fire, in a beautiful yellow room, enjoying a feast of mussels and scallops and salads sparkling with dark red beets and white goat cheese. Apropos of God knows what, my mother said, in a hauntingly familiar combination of envy and disapproval, "The life you and Brian live is luxe." I could feel something coming. "There's a lot of waste in your house," she added.

I felt the little bomb detonate, as if underwater, but it was Michael who called attention to it. "That's rude," he said. There was a small silence. "It's insulting and critical," I added. There was another small silence. But this time, my mother didn't come back with her stock line, "You're so oversensitive." Instead she apologized, several times. It warmed my heart, and I forgave her.

It was a small moment, but it showed us at our best my mother humbling herself, my brother supporting me, and me being my mortal self and not an invulnerable daughter-saint. I still marvel at my mother, not only because she's elegant in a way I'll never be, but also because, at the age of 82 she's still growing. And I marvel that, at 57, I'm capable of changing, too.


This blog is excerpted from "Refeathering the Nest" by Katy Butler. The full version is available in the September/October 2007 issue, "Being There: Learning the Art of Long-Term Care."

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Topic: Aging | Parenting

Tags: 2007 | anger | Depression & Grief | grief | grief and loss | Katy Butler | loss | love | love and relationships | loved one | mother-daughter relationships | Parenting | parenting issues | parents

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