Updated: Feb 3
What do you do when you find yourself in a situation where you find yourself parenting your parent? When my dad started to get sick, his role from caregiving to needing care changed quickly, and I found myself in a situation that I was not prepared to be in, a situation that was not taught in school. I found myself in a case where I needed to parent-my-parent, and to do so, I needed to learn things that typical twenty-year-olds do not typically need to know.
Did you know there are different DNRs? Did you know that insurance can pick and choose what part of a wheelchair is essential? I did not, nor did I think those would become common topics of conversation I would have in my twenties. While friends were planning weekends away, my brother and I were planning our weeks around visits to our childhood home and doctor’s appointments just to be reminded that our dad’s quality of life was regressing.
My daily calls with my mom changed from the latest reality tv gossip to the latest call to social security, what insurance had the best benefits, making sure the correct DNRs were signed and distributed. I hope that worrying about DNRs, insurance, making sure you have all the required contacts if your mom cannot reach out to her human resource department is something you never need to mull over.
Reflecting on my dad’s illness brings me back to feeling so isolated, so alone in my thoughts and feelings because I was in a place in my life that felt as if explaining it meant I needed to say things out loud, something I was far from ready to admit to myself. I could not connect, and I was living the situation, how I could expect others to connect to a problem that I could not wrap my head around myself.
After discovering that I was pregnant with Ashton, I had an enormous pit in my stomach around parenting without a parent. I suffered in silence for far too long for fear of what would happen if I expressed my feelings to others. Often I would cry in the shower because it was the only place I could be alone. Saying I was afraid for the future was and still is such an understatement. I have stated before my struggles with Ashton’s pregnancy and counting down to his due date, feeling like I was counting down the moments I had left with my dad. Still, something that took me a long time to understand was the hidden fear of who I would be as a mom without having my dad by my side. Would I change drastically after his death? Would I still be the same mom for Ashton as I was for Thor as a newborn? Would I jump into a state of post-partum depression?
You do not go through a terminal illness of a loved one and not come out someone different. You do not have to make life-altering decisions with your mom and brother and come out weaker. I knew the new me, me without a dad, would be more robust, a person to be reckoned with, but the unknown was uneasy. I only knew myself as someone who had a dad, as a mom to a toddler who had “Papa” to call for advice, for a good laugh, for a breakfast conversation. It felt like everything I knew, every way I was a mom, was about to change when I no longer had a dad.
Having a background in education, I have taught others to look for answers in books, research, find out the moral of the story at hand. Still, I found myself in a situation where I felt so underprepared, so misunderstood because I was in a position that typically you do not find yourself in at a young age, parenting-a-parent.
The most challenging aspect regarding the rate of the progression in my option is the speed at which you need to have tough conversations. You will repeatedly hear that people in the ALS community talk about how the disease progresses differently in the body and at different speeds. I was already not mentally ready to have the conversations. I was not prepared to discuss what would be happening, what we all knew would be next. Something essential was ensuring we honored all my dad’s wishes regarding his progression, especially while he had his voice. With the rate of his progression and knowing he would no longer have the opportunity to verbalize his wishes, that meant those conversations needed to happen whether I was ready or not.
So back to the question, what do you do when you find yourself parenting your parent? Especially when you still are at an age when you need your parent to parent you.
Are you ready for the word of the wise? The wisdom that I took from all of this.
You parent the crap out of them.
Now sit tight and let me explain what I mean by that because even though I am a boy mom who talks about poop most of the day, it is different this time.
What do we want in a parent? We want someone who loves us, someone who is there for us, someone who puts our needs before their own even if it is the hardest decision, even if they are exhausted, even if they go to bed in tears. A parent is someone who cares and loves unconditionally, someone who is there to guide and support, talk to, listen, someone who sees you for you, and someone who is understanding. So what do we do if we need to parent? We become the parent that we want, that we expect, that we had.
It circles back to the rule we all heard as children, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Do we plan on taking on the role of caretaking a parent, especially at a young age? No. But, sometimes, we still need to make lemonade out of lemons and find a way to make it to tomorrow because I would assume that your parents also did not plan on having their children take care of them while they were younger. So, you have to think to yourself, how would you want to be treated in this situation? How would you like to be loved?
We are not taught in school how to fight with insurance or how to use a suction machine. We are not taught how to plan a funeral or what to put in an obituary. But, our parents taught us morals and values; how to be kind, how to love, and how sometimes life sucks. You will hear parents worldwide tell their children to get back up and try again, shake it off; you will never know if you don’t try. It can feel like when you become a parent that the world gives a mental handbook of phases to say as you pat your child on the back and remind them not to give up. Well, just as they would say to you, you now need to remind yourself that things will be okay, not to give up, and to try try again.
We may not plan on needing to parent-a-parent, but if you are in a situation where you need to do so, parent the crap out of them.
Growing up, you read fairy tales where the grandparents are old and weak. Parents watch generation after generation come into the world, and the circle of life is a beautiful image because people pass in their sleep holding the hands of their loved ones.
For some families, that will become their story; that will be the story that they will live out in real life, but that is not the story that everyone can tell.
We all have one life to live, one story to tell. Some families may have novels, some families may have short stories, and some may only have a paragraph. The length of the story does not matter; what matters is the love and time put into the words of the story.