Caregiving and the True Meaning of Motherhood


To me, the definition of motherhood is someone who nurtures. Yes, carrying a child in your womb for months and then giving birth creates a lifelong bond that cannot be broken, even by separation. However, it's the nurturing of a child throughout life that, to me, represents motherhood.

Many children face significant challenges as they navigate their early years. Some children face severe challenges.

Even so, if a child knows that there is someone he or she can count on during difficult times, as well as someone to share the wonderful times with, their development will be enhanced. This nurturing presence is symbolized by motherhood, whether that nurturing is provided by the birth mother, an adoptive parent, a grandmother, an aunt or a father.

Mothers who could not (or would not) nurture

While many of us are mothers, all of us are someone's child.

If we had a mother who was neglectful or abusive, it affects us for life. The cause for this neglect or abuse may stem from mental illness, emotional scars from the woman's own childhood abuse or a self-centeredness that is intrinsic to her personality. If the children of these women are fortunate, they may find a more appropriate mother figure in a grandmother, an aunt or even the mother of a friend. If they are not so fortunate, they may struggle throughout life to learn what it is to love and be loved.

We need to understand that no mother is perfect and no human will make the right call for their child's well-being every time. Forgiveness by the child toward the less-than-perfect parent is essential to having a mutually beneficial relationship.

Caring for our aging mothers

By the time we become middle aged, our mother or mother figure may show signs of needing assistance. This change in our relationship with our mother can be confusing for even the most tenderly raised adult child. For the adult child who was neglected or abused, this change can be tormenting. Significant challenges arise when adult children are faced with caring for narcissistic parents.

So, how much do we owe our mothers?

If our mothers were nurturing, do we owe them constant care, our financial welfare, our marriage or own children's welfare? I don't believe so. What we "owe" our parents is respect, if they've earned it and, except for the most egregious situation, some respect for their place in society, even if their parenting wasn't exemplary.

I've gathered from reading questions written by caregiving sons and daughters that there is frequently an inverse relationship between how nurturing the mother was during the adult child's youth and how much care the mother expects once she ages. This is, I must stress, entirely unscientific and simply an observation on my part, based on reading a multitude of questions and comments from other caregivers.

Yet, it does seem to me that women who have nurtured their children into adulthood and then find themselves needing more help with the increasing issues of age generally don't want their children to completely give up their own lives in order to provide care. Conversely, many mothers who were especially selfish and demanding as they raised their children—and thus were not good nurturers—are often selfish and demanding aging parents who expect great sacrifice from their grown children.

It seems that because of their innate selfishness, their mental instability or their scars from their own childhood of abuse, these women continue their attempts to control the adult child. This is where the adult child needs to set boundaries.

Providing some type of care for our aging parents is generally good. Turning over one's life and future to our parents rarely is. The challenge is finding a balance that allows us to appropriately care for our parents while we maintain healthy relationships with our spouse, our own children and others who are important to us.

Do we ever become our mother's mother?

I frequently stress that we never become our parent's parent. Caring for parents versus caring for children are two very different endeavors.

We may feed our mother pureed food, change her diapers and handle her money during her last years. Doing so may often make us feel like we have become her mother and she our child. Having spent two decades caring for different combinations of multiple elders, I can relate to that feeling.

However, feeling like we are performing the chores for our elders that we once did for our babies still doesn't change the basic fact that this person is still our elder. Remembering that this person has a legacy of years lived, challenges faced, and pain suffered, as well as triumphs and failures, helps us keep our relationship in perspective.

Our mother—or mother figure—remains so, even after her body and mind betray her. Her place in our history does not change.

Who is our mother?

In the end, we all have to make our own decisions about what motherhood is and to whom we owe our allegiance. After that, we need to remember that we also owe our children, our spouse and ourselves time, love and patience. Juggling these emotional and practical demands is an ongoing challenge.

I believe that we are honoring the legacy of true motherhood when we strive to do our best to nurture those who need nurturing.

We learn from our mother's mistakes and our own. We "mother" those who need mothering—whether they are children, elders, ill spouses or others whom we love. We also allow independence and respect to all generations, appropriate to their needs. True motherhood means nurturing ourselves, as well. A true, nurturing mother would want her offspring to practice self-care, even if our mother figure is now unable to communicate those feelings.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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I can so relate to this. I think my mom was on hormones after her hysterectomy 45 years ago. This may have contributed to her mood swings. To this day, I still have trouble forgiving her for many things.
Well written observations. I have a 'mother' unlike most of my friends' mothers. They cannot even relate to what it's been like with her. My husband and I got married twelve years ago and at the time we began seeing each other, I was not in contact with either of my parents. They were enraged because my brother had confided in my about his very complicated divorce plans and had sworn me to secrecy. The information was not mine to share. He wanted to get through it completely before telling either of them - because they are not supportive in any way usually, being self centered - and he is the type of 'avoid'. Anyway, when they found out later (he told them!) that I had known, they were made enough at me to say they were going to write me out of their will (this is the second time by then!) for such a heinous infraction. They simply believe they are the center of the universe. Both are NPD but my mother is particularly nasty to me. I am the classic scapegoat and we have always had what I now see as a very competitive relationship, not a normal mother-daughter-where-she-does-the-nurturing kind. I was very close to my paternal grandmother, who lived very nearby and she really was my role model 'mother' person. My mother saw that bond early on, I think, and was so jealous of it that when I had my first daughter (I am also the oldest daughter and first of five kids) she really did set out to alienate my daughter from me, in revenge for my closeness to my grandmother. No one would really believe all of this unless they lived something like it. My husband, thinking when we began dating, that it was not right to not speak to your parents urged me to rekindle a relationship. I tried - again - for him. I was in my heart before that sure I was ready to be done, but he convinced me and I thought that I had perhaps missed something. All these years later, he (a very dutiful and loving son to his now deceased mother with whom he had typical struggles growing up, etc) says that my mother is by far the worst person he has ever met. He says she is evil! She is.
So! Where we are today - I again had no contact with my parents. I tried for years - again - and even my dad would say to my mother that there is no way to move forward if we can't put 'the past behind us'. What my dad won't acknowledge is that he married a woman incapable of really being loving. And her focus of disgust and anger is me; it is easier for her to look herself in the mirror if she can justify that it must be MY fault because she can tell herself she gets along fine with everyone else. She doesn't. And she is calculated about where and how she expresses her vitriol so there is 'plausible deniability' on her part. My only saving grace is my faith. I believe you have to do the 'right' thing whether it's easy or not. Boundaries to my mother are unacceptable. NOBODY tells her how it's going to be. There is huge punishment for it that will not abate unless she can break you. And she cannot break me, so I am done. If she needed care in a nursing home, or otherwise, I would see that she got it. I would make sure she was clean and dressed and no one was taking advantage of her. I also would rarely visit her. I have 'forgiven' her for myself, not for her. She doesn't want to think she needs any forgiveness. After all it is my fault, all my fault.
My own daughter has many of her traits. So did her father, from whom I am divorced. It is not uncommon that with this primary relationship (with one's mother) being verbally and emotionally abusive, when marrying especially when you are young (I was 21 but dated him for four years before) that a person will recreate that bad relationship in an attempt to 'fix' it. Divorce then has it's own set of awful consequences, especially from a person who was abusive during the marriage. They certainly are not going to become less demanding and nasty when it is no longer all about them and you are no longer a doormat! It is what my counselor years ago called 'sins of the father', as in the Bible. We recreate these patterns for generations IF we don't 'get it'. Well, I got it, but not before I had three kids. My daughter would seize on everything being my fault too - it's what she heard from her dad and my mother all her life and I loved her so much, I apologized repeatedly for putting her through the divorce. It is a complicated and sad mess.
I do have one grown child, a son, who get it. He too has found peace, waited till his 30's to marry and married a girl who he share faith with, who is loving yet firm and honest about her feelings and boundaries, and with whom I share wonderful times. They have a sweet new baby so we can truly enjoy the pleasures of grandparenthood in a very normal way. I am married now to the love of my life.
My son and his wife want us to eventually move closer (we live out of town). They have expressed not only do they want to see us more and have us able to see our grandchild more, but also want to look out for us when we are older. It is what family does. My husband and I have made plans as thoroughly as possible for our care and finances so we won't be a burden. I have the huge blessing of being married to a man who loved and respected his mother and also the huge blessing of having such a son. We cannot re do the past but thank God my one child has chosen to truly grow up and not stay stuck in blaming or thinking that parents continually are expected to meet every need and desire or take the responsibility for disappointments in life. I am confident that whatever comes our way, we will move forward as a family and work through things 'together but separately'.
But let me say, having NPD parents is a lasting legacy that truly cripples a family and from which many do not survive in a healthy sense.
MikeGood, I have to say, I have been on hormones and it is NO EXCUSE for that kind of bad behavior.