A friend called and as we chatted, she asked me how my mother-in-law was doing. I thanked her for asking and tried to keep my answer brief. After I had shared the quick highs and lows of our week, my friend said, “I couldn’t do it. If my mother-in-law needed any kind of help, I‘d tell her to look to someone else, at least while my children are still at home. The kids are my priority.”
I really didn’t dwell on those words at first. We went on to talk about other things like her holiday travel plans and the great Christmas tree farm my husband accidentally discovered. Had I really given it any thought at the time, I would have conceded that my friend really doesn’t know how she would react if her mother-in-law needed care because you can guess what you might do if placed in a situation, but trust me on this, you don’t know—not until you are there.
The following day, I ran into an acquaintance who had heard from a mutual friend that my mother-in-law is living with us, and she volunteered her own care-giving story. She took care of her father-in-law following a stroke. “Thank God my children were already grown. I would have never done it when they were younger. When they were growing up, they were my top priority.”
There’s that word again! Now, having been smacked with this priority banter twice in as many days, I am thinking about all the times in the past year and a half in which someone has told me that they couldn’t care for an elderly relative because their children are/were their priority. I know they are justifying their own decisions, but how can I not see this type of comment as a slap in the face? After all, my children are only six and three!
“Are you implying that my children are not my priority? That I am a crappy mother? That I love my children less than you love yours? Please, answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions and hold still while I take off my shoe and beat you with it.” Yes, that may be what I say the very next time this conversation happens. It’s my guess that Ms. My-Children-Are-My-Priority will do some serious back-peddling when she sees that shoe in my hand.
Because other women feel the need to volunteer what they would do and that my reaction is so visceral, I wonder if elder-care is the next great battle in the Mommy Wars. Maybe we are just waiting for Rikki Lake to make a movie about it or for Gisele Bundchen to call a press conference. Is how we care for our elderly the next great parenting debate?
If you are male or a child-free female, let me catch you up to speed on this Mommy Wars nonsense. Once a woman announces she is pregnant, almost every other mother gives her passionate, unsolicited advice. Her every decision is open to scrutiny and public debate. Lesser celebrities write books, make films, and comment ad nausea on how their way is the right way to birth and care for a child. It’s a career-booster for them. Their agents probably tell them, “Look, I can’t find you any work unless you publish a book on vegan diets for infants.” No real expertise is needed—kind of like me with this blog, but with name recognition.
For the most part, I’ve felt somewhat exempt from the Mommy Wars. I suspect it’s my age, but I would like to think it is my aura of confidence, that keeps most of my would-be critics and advisors from commenting. I don’t get much advice or snarkiness concerning my parenting skills–even when people witness my children chasing each other with scissors. I give even less.
However, the question of whether it is possible to care for an older person and small children at the same time reminds me of the biggest Mommy Wars battle of all: Stay-At-Home-Moms versus the Employed. Perhaps it is because that word priorities gets thrown around a lot when women discuss this topic.
When I hear someone cite kids as a reason not to care for other family members, I am reminded of a stay-at-home-mom telling an employed mother, “I’d love to go back to work, but my children are my priority.” Ouch! You see, that statement may be what the speaker genuinely feels about herself, but it comes with bitter edge of judgment, too. Isn’t she really saying, “Because you work outside of the home, your children aren’t your priority?”
And believe me, the employed moms deliver their own brand of zingers. I’ve actually had someone say to me, “You are so lucky you don’t feel the need to work. I’ve always been the ambitious type. I could never just throw my education away by being a housewife.” Please note that I did not beat that witch with my shoe, but I probably should have.
As woman who left a career to stay home with her children, I’m well aware of the Mommy Wars, and I’ve made a point to not engage in them. I recognize that we all do what we believe is best for our families and no justification of personal choices is ever needed. I believe the reason so many women feel the need to weigh in negatively on the choices that other women make is that they feel insecure and are second-guessing their decisions.
The same is true of elder-care. A nursing home may be the answer for one family, but not for another–and the age of one’s children is just one factor in a sea of variables. Until you are right there and having to make a decision based on your very specific situation, don’t assume that you can’t or won’t be swayed to do something you previously thought beyond your abilities or not in line with your priorities.
Look around you and you will see we live in a world in which life has handed a lot of people situations they had not anticipated. Grandparents and (gasp) great-grandparents are raising children. Soldiers return from war without limbs. CEOs and laborers find themselves unexpectedly unemployed. Loved ones die suddenly and at any age.
The cold, hard fact is that regardless of what you say your priorities are and what you want your priorities to be, unfortunate life-events may have you dealing with more responsibility than you initially signed on for. When I look through my wedding album and see my beautiful mother-in-law so elegantly dressed, I know that on that day, I could not have foreseen that I would be brushing her teeth for her or giving her insulin shots eight years later.
The stuff that happens to us is usually not a choice. No one chose for my mother-in-law to fall and suddenly age more rapidly. And I certainly didn’t choose for this to happen while my children are still so young. Frequently, when I think about her care, I feel pretty damn choice-less. However, I am—we are—doing the best we can under the circumstances, and is her care a priority? Yep. It has to be because she is family and compassion is something we value.
Are my children any less of a priority? No. On those rare occasions when I do feel a little sorry for them, I remind myself that my kids won the parent-lottery. My husband and I attend to their needs. We teach them right from wrong. We pray for them and with them. We expose them to new experiences in a big, exciting world. We nurture their interests. They are growing up healthy, happy, courageous, and grounded. That’s as good as it gets.
And if there is any benefit to being a child in our household, it is growing up knowing the world doesn’t revolve around them and they are called to be compassionate even when they don’t feel up to it.
Not too long ago, I heard a woman talking about what it was like to raise her children—one is healthy and the other has a disability that requires extra attention. She said that when she is worried that she is short-changing the healthy one, she reminds herself that he has the advantage of knowing first-hand what it’s like to live with someone who is a little different and demands more care. He’ll take what he learns at home and share it with the world. She even tells him, “Just think, you already know more about care-giving than most adults. You are a blessing because you can teach people about helping and about love!”
That blew me away. I thought, “That’s not entirely unlike our household, and I’m going to hold onto her words!” because again, here is a family taking what life has handed them—a child who has some greater challenges—and they are doing the best they can with what they have been given. God bless ‘em.
So, even if this questioning of priorities becomes the next Mommy Wars battle, I’ll probably sit this one out. I’ll keep my shoes on my feet, and just remind myself that other people’s choices aren’t a criticism of my own even when they may feel like it. We do the best we can with what we have been given.
(Disclaimer: To date, I have yet to hit anyone with a shoe. I think about it all the time. I just have yet to do it. Don’t be the first. Hmmm…that sounds more like a threat than a disclaimer.)