You Don’t Have Children, So You Go

As the daughter with no children, I seem to be the one expected to drop everything to take care of her parents. It really came home recently when I was sitting in my father’s hospital room talking to the social worker about his future. Dad and I had both told her that I lived in Oregon and couldn’t stay in San Jose forever.

“Of course you have to get back to your family,” the social worker said.

“No family,” I corrected. “Just me.”

Which seemed to mean that I had no excuses, nothing to hurry back for. If I didn’t have a husband, children and grandchildren, how dare I claim that I was not available for as long as I was needed? It’s hard to argue that even with myself.

My bills aren’t getting paid. Do it online.

I miss Annie. She’s just a dog.

I miss my clothes. Buy some new ones.

I miss my bathtub. You’ll get over it.

I miss my music. Trivia. This is real life.

I need to get back to work. Another person is handling it.

I don’t know what to do. He’s your father. He’s going to die pretty soon.

“Stay here and I’ll pay you,” my father said. This was when I was taking care of him at home, before he went to the hospital and the nursing home. But it was not about the money I was losing by not being at my job. I love my work. I’ve spent 50 years building up to this place in my writing and music careers. “People are counting on me,” I said, even as I knew that another woman had stepped in to do my church music job.

There’s a certain amount of sexism to this. My brother, who has children and grandchildren, has a job that my father brags about to everyone. “Don’t bother him,” he tells medical personnel. “He’s working.” In my brother’s defense, he has been driving six hours round-trip every weekend to be with our father and do what he can to take care of his bills and his house. He’s doing more than his share, and he does understand what it’s like for me. But I’m the one who gets the phone calls from the hospital and the nursing home, the one who in theory does not have to be in Oregon when her father needs her in California.

Mothers routinely give up a lot to care for their kids. If they complain, they’re considered bad mothers. Now I wonder if I could ever have been so self-sacrificing. My writing and music are like my babies. I refuse to abandon them. I have often thought about how I gave up motherhood for my husband, but I would never marry a man who wanted me to give up my work. What does that mean? Even though it hurts not to have children, was I never cut out to be a mother? Why does it feel wrong to say that?

Back at the dad situation, am I a bad daughter because I wanted to limit how much of myself I sacrificed? Part of me wanted to stay with him. I had his house to sleep in, food to eat, family to be with. It was sunny and warm while it kept raining back in Oregon. I was writing all the time. No Wi-Fi, no TV, no distractions, except for Dad. Shoot, it was like a vacation, except for all the worry, caregiving, and lack of sleep.

There are days when I wish I had taken Dad’s offer or that I had a childless child to help me deal with my own problems. One day last week, the nursing home called. While I was trying to understand what the Asian worker with the thick accent was saying, the washing machine repair guy arrived. Then I got an email from my publisher who needed an immediate response. At the same time, the dog was bugging me for a walk, the house was cold because the heater had died again, I was dealing with a stolen debit card number, and I had to be at church in three hours to direct a choir that seemed to like my substitute better than me. I had been gone for a month, and everything had gone to hell.

My family wants to know when I’m coming back. Soon, I say.

It’s not that I don’t love my father. If he needs me, I will be there. But when I’m taking care of him, my own life falls apart.

If I said, “I miss my kids,” no one would expect me to stay. That’s just the truth of it. In some situations, motherhood seems to be the only acceptable excuse. Maybe if I had a heart attack . . .

What do you think? Are you expected to babysit, take care of ailing relatives, run the errands, etc., because you don’t have kids? How do you react to that?

Doing the Daughter Thing: Taking Care of Dad

Dear friends, I spent the past month immersed in helping my 91-year-old father as he deals with severe heart disease and waits for surgery to repair his aortic valve. His condition had gotten so bad that I dropped everything here in Oregon and drove as quickly as I could to San Jose, California to help him. Not wanting to get caught as I did with my mother, I even brought a funeral outfit, just in case. Luckily I didn’t need it because I forgot the chemise that goes under the sheer blouse and it wouldn’t have been good to show up with a see-through top. I’m sure his electrician friends would have been impressed!
I fell into this odd role, part daughter, part substitute wife, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, driving my father to his many doctor’s appointments and tests, and endless hours of talking. Dad can talk for hours without stopping, and he has many great stories to tell. But he also needed to talk through what’s happening to him, to try to make sense of the fact that the end of his life is coming soon, even if the surgery is a success. I think listening to him was more important than washing his shirts or putting three meals a day on the table.
While I was there, I got sick. I think it was food poisoning. Bad chicken. Dad got it, too, but I got it worse, and I’m still getting over it. Heck of a weight-loss plan. Luckily my brother had come from his home three hours away to take Dad for his angiogram. I wasn’t going anywhere that day. The next day Mike went home, and I resumed my caregiving role, still feeling like crap but carrying on.
Most of my work, including this blog, got left behind. Not only was I unable to get online at Dad’s house, but eventually it didn’t seem that important in view of everything else.
Ultimately, Dad’s medication helped him feel better, and I needed to catch up with things in my own life, so I came home. A big part of me feels like I should still be in San Jose. I’ll go back next month for the surgery, a relatively new alternative to open-heart surgery that is being performed in San Francisco.
What has all this got to do with being childless? More than you think. I often thought over the past month how different things would be if I had a husband and children. I would not fall so easily back into the role of care-giving daughter perhaps, and I could summon other people to help. Last Saturday, my brother, his wife, his son and his daughter-in-law went to visit our father. They did yard work, fixed the plumbing, bought groceries, made lunch, and kept Dad company as a team. I wish I had a team like that.
If I had children, they’d be adults now, and they could help “Grandpa.” They could also help me when I need it. And that would be sweet. But I do have friends, friends who took over my day-job duties, friends who sorted my mail and sent me my bills so I could pay them, friends who visited my dog Annie so she wouldn’t be lonely, and a friend who just invited me to join her family for Thanksgiving. Friends are not the same as family, but in some ways, they may be better. I can be my goofy self with my friends instead of the dutiful daughter or the mature aunt that the kids see as an old lady.
Although he has children, my father still spends a lot of time alone. My brother, my aunt, a couple cousins and I are driving him a little nuts with phone calls making sure he’s still all right, but ultimately, although he had a wife and two children, he is alone most of the time. Most widowed elders are alone a lot, even if they have a dozen children. If they’re lucky, they have great friends like I do.
This story is not over. This is merely intermission. Forgive the rambling post. So much has happened. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts and experiences.