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?