Motherhood: The Endless Give And Take

woman with older mother

Some family stuff is just plain hard. Like now. My mother is 84, lives 2,700 miles away, has been in and out of the hospital due to illness, and is now in a rehabilitation center. I've flown from New Jersey to Nevada to relieve my brother, who lives down the block from her. I'm now navigating conversations with doctors, figuring out what isn't being said and working out what happens next.

I'm staying for several weeks and, since I've done this a few times, I know the terrain. I'm not complaining. But I am keenly aware of what such separations and circumstances do to my own family, to my marriage and to me as a mother.

I could write some pithy piece about the circle of life, and about how seeing their mom caring for an elderly (grand)parent strengthens my kids' sense of family. Or I could write some wise-and-not-too-whiny piece about how belonging to the sandwich generation has hidden benefits (empathy, for one). Or I could write something serious, but not too sad, about how facing these issues together strengthens a couple. After all, these things are all true.

But I won't.

Because, due to living across the country, lagging time zones and the differences in how my on-the-scene brother and I approach Mom's care, this situation is mostly frustrating, sad and stressful. My sons, 12 and 16, understand what's ahead, and sense the toll it's taking on me and, by extension, our household. And while my husband's parents, at ages 90 and 88, are healthier than my mother, there is still an element of their aging that weighs down on us all.

Frank and I are both the youngest child in our families, both born when our mothers were 34 years old. Our siblings have finished raising their children. Some are grandparents themselves. But we are in the thick of it, raising school-age kids, and working like mad to raise some future college funds. Doing both—helping my kids prepare for more independence, and helping my mother accept that independent living may no longer be an option—is exhausting, mentally and emotionally. No matter how much Frank and I listen to one another, no matter how much my sister (again, from long distance) offers support, no matter how much my own sons assure me that I’m doing a decent job at both, I sometimes want to shirk it off to someone else—someone smarter, kinder, less selfish, more objective.

But we are all stuck with me.

When my father died four years ago, I was surprised at the level of grief that rolled through my own family; after all, my kids only saw their PopPop a few times a year. Yet even now, my 12-year-old says he still sometimes "talks" to his grandfather at bedtime. Now, when I'm on the phone for hours talking with doctors long distance, or when Frank dashes down to his parents' house to solve some problem, I see the questioning, frightened looks my kids try to hide. How To Help A Partner Grieve

I have no answers for them. I can't think about that now. Not this week. Not when I'm alone on the scene, running between my mother's room at the rehab hospital and the only place nearby where there's a reliable enough Wi-Fi connection to allow me to get work done.

I'm doing my best to keep in touch with my husband and sons via phone calls and texts. While I'm here, the 16-year-old is tackling driving lessons, and his younger brother has begun soccer practice. Last night, they emailed photos of them at a Yankees game. I'm missing it all, and even though I know that what I'm doing here is important, and that Frank has altered his work schedule, and that friends are pitching in, I still somewhat resent the whole situation.

For now, I can only think about what Mom needs, and somehow reconcile that with what I need, and what my husband and our children need. So far, we're holding steady, though we don't always like the situation we're in. Like now. My need to travel forced us to cancel our family vacation, made it necessary for me to forego a freelance project that promised needed income, and separated us for the final weeks of summer, a time when we traditionally spend more, not less, time together.

When I was packing, everyone in my house kept their distance—though they also pitched in. Frank made calls, studied the family calendar and made sure, the night before my flight, that we made love, passionately. The boys taught me how my new cell phone works, rounded up magazines for the plane ride and slipped a snack into my purse. Yes. We're holding steady. What choice do we have?

Lisa Romeo is writing from Las Vegas this week.