Problems with no name

April 3, 2010

I must admit that I balked at reading Jonathan Rauch’s article in The Atlantic, “Letting Go of My Father” because I knew it would cut close to the bone… and it did.

It’s well worth reading, but his central point is that caring for his aging father pushed Rauch to the breaking point… of actually talking about what he was going through.  This led him to “discover” that millions of middle-aged people struggle with this huge issue, suffering much of the time in silence.

Rauch likens this social problem to that of “housewives” in the 60’s who’s problem of endemic loneliness and boredom were dubbed “the problem that has no name,” by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique back in 1963.

While this problem may have no name, for me it has an image:  after my father’s last disastrous visit, one punctuated by falls, scares and the realization of serious deterioration in his ability to care for himself, I got back from taking he and my mom to the airport to hear that Agnes, our boxer-bulldog, had come trotting out of the bathroom with a full Depends in her teeth.  As I worked to clean the leavings of my father from the floor and the wastebasket, I felt that this problem with no name did at least have a fairly vivid visual.

Rauch questions why we, as a society, are so completely unprepared for the inevitable regarding our parents, and ultimately ourselves—and he answers with the usual suspects—a culture that “enables” denial, procrastination and silence.

I must say that Rauch said a couple of things that I sense many a mother would consider over-stated:  “In the years after Betty Friedan named their problem, women who work in the home (formerly “housewives”) demanded and got a new infrastructure for support: opportunities to study and work at home, part-time job opportunities, public and private help with child care, social networks, and so on. Perhaps more important, they demanded and got society’s recognition that they were providing an indispensable public good. As a result, they are not isolated or silent anymore, and they do not need to put up with being lonely or bored.”

While I whole-heartedly agree with Rauch’s cry to bring the issue of elder care into full public view, I don’t think we’ve truly come to respect and support parents, particularly single mothers and fathers at nearly the level he imagines.  I am further skeptical that denial (about elder-care or parenting) will fall before the winds of journalism.  However, I’m glad to see that he is speaking up, and this encourages more of us to speak up—and to speak with each other—not just about aging parents, but about whatever troubles us.  We tend to mask our hurts, struggles and needs, and this perpetuates shame and isolation.

Be it as parents, or as caregivers to our parents, my simple accord with Jonathan Rauch is that we’re all in this together and that we all need each other—for concrete help, but also for fellowship and community in the trenches.

In case you don’t read his article, but need help caring for aging parents, he cites the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org) and The National Alliance for Caregiving (www.caregiving.org) and strengthforcaring.com.  Whether for a parent, spouse or friend, if you need help organizing care a great resource is to be found in lotsahelpinghands.

So, let’s dedicate today to awareness of each other in all our collective struggles—in honor of all our collective “children” (who sometimes turn out to be our parents).

Namaste, Bruce

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen @ Motherese April 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm

I’ve always wondered just when I would reach the point when my relationship to my parents shifts on its axis, with me taking on the parenting role and them taking on the children’s role. I’m not there yet, but there are definitely ways in which we’re moving toward an equilibrium in which each party is offering and receiving care in equal amounts.

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privilegeofparenting April 3, 2010 at 3:37 pm

In some ways it’s the terrible uncertainty that makes many things in life rather challenging. All the more reason to connect and support each other.

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Justine April 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Being an only child, the care for my mother, who now resides in a different continent, falls entirely in my hands. It’s an honor for me to give back to the woman who had sacrificed so much for me, but at the same time, I admit, it’s a responsibility that I cannot share with anyone, and that weighs heavily on me. I just hope I will do right by her.

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privilegeofparenting April 3, 2010 at 10:29 pm

It’s particularly hard in a world where extended family and community are often more virtual than “real.” I too live far from my parents (although on the same continent) and sometimes feel torn and guilty between doing right by my kids and doing right by my parents. Still, it’s nice that you appreciate your mom so much, even if she’s far away.

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Randy April 5, 2010 at 11:32 am

I did not have to care for my aging parent. My brother ended up with that job. He was unemployed at the time and this became his job. I was very grateful to my brother that he took this on. It freed me up to have a different kind of life. My brother never talked much about the experience. However, I do believe that he forged a greater bond with my father than I ever had. My brother’s bond was forged from time spent together and with growth that occurs when your parent becomes human rather than whatever mythology we forged about them growing up. I hope that my son and I can get to this place sooner rather than later. I hope it will make the inevitable transition better for both of us.

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privilegeofparenting April 5, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Yes, the humanizing of our parents—off the pedestal and off the demon throne—is a big part of our individuation. I guess the long view can help us bond with our kids now, rather than waiting for our increasing frailty to render us human to them.

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Laurie April 7, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Just getting to all the posts. Interestingly enough I have recently started working with a company that offers “emergency response” for the elderly. Daily I listen to the myriad of stories from children, grandchildren and the elder. This is something that we all will have to experience whether we are the caregiver or the “givee”. On any level all have hesitation and difficulty jumping to the next level. Thanks for sharing.

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privilegeofparenting April 7, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Sounds like a company that will have plenty to respond to. Maybe you can let us know what you learn as you go, but it seems one more way in which we might learn that we’re all in this life together.

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