I don’t introduce myself to new people with, “Hi, I’m Susan. My 90-year-old, wheelchair bound mother-in-law lives with me. She has dementia.” Doing so would create a lot of awkward silences, and I would come across as needy. Besides, I read somewhere that people will tell you what is most important about them within the first few moments of meeting. I would rather be banished to the moon than have you believe that the most important thing about me is that I take care of my mother-in-law.
Still, she does come up in conversation. Sometimes, it is very direct. Someone will ask me how she is doing and subsequently how I am doing. Sometimes, it is less direct. For example, a few weeks ago, I was on a playground with a friend and I told her that one of the things I had unearthed while cleaning out my mother-in-law’s house was a large box of green and red Solo cups and holiday-themed paper plates.
“So, if you are having a Christmas party and want them, please let me know. I’ll be happy to let you have them,” I said to this friend.
A third person—someone I had met, but we aren’t really friends and so she doesn’t know the whole saga—piped in, “Why don’t YOU save them for YOU? Maybe YOU can have a Christmas party.”
Without thinking, I answered, “Well, I can’t really entertain while she is still alive. Perhaps once she is dead, I’ll throw a party.”
And the third person walked away quickly after that, and I thought how my response probably came across as a little callous. I was certain I had made a horrific second impression and I wondered if I shouldn’t get in touch with her to apologize and explain. I decided not to. I’m over caring what other people think about me, especially if they aren’t in my position.
Besides, I have found that when I confide in people who really don’t know me well, I either say too much trying to make them understand the exact situation—“It’s like caring for a 100 lb. newborn” –and they still don’t get it or they immediately liken a care-giving situation they know of to mine. Everyone knows someone who has needed care or someone who has cared for a relative. “Oh, I know exactly what you are going through. My sister’s son is in a mental institution.” “I’m in the same situation. My step-kids are with us every other weekend.” “My mom just convinced my grandparents to move into an assisted living community, so I know what you mean.”
This used to bother me—all these people who claimed to know exactly what my life is like when really their situation or—more likely, the situation they know of is nothing like my own. Hard? Sure. Identical to mine? Almost never.
Now, I realize that they are looking for common ground, and something I have said has felt familiar and comfortable to them. And so, now they are confiding in me and perhaps doing a little projecting. I’m okay with this. I’m even happy to help.
There are, however, those rare instances when my mother-in-law comes up in conversation almost immediately, I giving a stranger more information than I had intended and find that I am talking with a veteran care-giver—someone who has truly been there, done that.
While church shopping, for example, I found myself explain our living arrangement because a friendly parishioner asked. When she said, “So, tell me about your family,” presumably so she could then tell me what her congregation has to offer, I responded with, “We are a household that ranges in age from 3 to 90. My husband and I have two small children and his mother lives with us.” And that opened the door to a conversation about eldercare because she had taken care of her mother-in-law. She had been there, done that.
In fact in the past year that I’ve spent as my mother-in-law’s care-giver, I have encountered only four people whose situations were truly like mine. By that, I mean the infirmed person was an elderly in-law who lived in their home, and while none of them had children as young as mine, all four had minor children in the home—usually teenagers.
And for them the situation was in the past.
The thing that I have noticed about the BTDT crowd is that they have never given me advice. Instead, they just listen and offer encouragement. Mostly, they say, “I know it feels like your life has come to a standstill and time is moving so slowly for you, but she will die and this part of your life will end. When that happens, you will look back on this time, and none of it will feel like that big of a deal. It’s just really hard to be where you are right now.” In other words, this, too, shall pass. It’s not a terribly brilliant concept, nor is it original, but it is true, and for some reason, it’s comforting to hear someone who has been there, done that say it.
I found this to be true while going through my divorce, too. I loved all my married and single friends, but they all offered advice—probably because they really didn’t know what else to do—but the friends who had experienced divorce first hand showed me that I would survive because they had survived. They really didn’t have to say anything beyond, “You will be fine.”
I’m sure this is true of every difficult situation a person can encounter. Just knowing someone who has stood where you are standing and hear them say that you will get through it really means a lot.