Did Your Mother Really Know Best?

Witnessing our parents' aging process can be painful. Some people find the pain so unbearable that they find reasons to be angry with their parents. Some use other distancing behaviors so they feel justified in withdrawing. Most of us don't go to this extreme, but many of us find that occasionally we'll look at one or both of our parents and feel a shockwave go through us.

"They are getting old!"

I am a daughter who has experienced the shock of watching your parents age before your eyes. Even though, for the greater part of my life, I lived in the same community as my parents and saw them often—or maybe because of that fact—their aging came at me, during certain moments in time, like punches to the gut. You may be experiencing a similar reaction.

These people once took care of our needs. Now they need—or may soon need—our help. While it's not logical thinking, we can feel a little betrayed. The child inside of us rebels. We don't want our parents to grow old and frail, for our sake, not just theirs. We can begin to feel kind of "orphaned."

Reflections on our Childhood

Nearly every childhood leaves us with mixed memories. Even siblings raised together by the same parents can have wildly differing views on how their shared childhood played out. For most of us, there are times when we think, "Hmm, Mom was right about that." Other times, we know for certain she was wrong. The same goes for Dad, of course, but we're addressing Mom in this particular article.

So, What Did My Mom Tell Me That I Now Think Was Right?

  1. Take care of people you love: My mom was a family caregiver. My dad's mother lived with us for a number of years, and mom was the primary caregiver for her own parents since she was the geographically closest of her siblings. I was blessed to see that family caregiving is just something you do. Not that nursing homes and other care options didn't enter the picture when there was no other choice, but the first was to care for the elders the best she could until they needed more care than she could provide.
  2. Vote: Mom was an early member of the League of Women Voters. The League wasn't very political in those days. It was mostly about getting out the vote. I haven't kept up with it in later years, but I do think that is still the main focus of the group. What I remember well was big "VOTE" signs in our front yard, and in the yards of anyone else that would allow her to put them up. These signs literally just said "VOTE." She passed down her feelings about our right and responsibility to vote to her children.
  3. Giving for the joy of giving without expectation of return or thanks: Mom volunteered for Meals on Wheels. She worked on petitions to bring public television to our community. She volunteered at church. She taught by example that you don't give to get approval. Giving of oneself is its own reward.

What Did My Mom Tell Me That I Now Think Is Wrong?

  1. Clean your plate club: I was an underweight child, so I was pushed to eat. My parents meant well. They also grew up during the ‘30s, when food was scarce, so there was a bit of the "don't waste" mentality at work. But I had a small appetite, and I couldn't always "clean my plate." Now, medical professionals say, "Don't clean your plate. Stop when you are full." Mom would get that now, but I grew up with a "clean your plate" edict and it caused some conflict.
  2. The house must be immaculate before you can have company: I remember a time when my aunt (my mother's sister) and uncle were coming to visit our Midwestern community. It wasn't as though they were strangers to the area, but they did live a much more glamorous life than we did. Before they came to visit, one would think we were preparing for royalty. However, it was always that way. Mom hated anyone coming into the house unless it was spotless and in total order. She took it personally. I've had to unlearn that rule (I've done that very well, thank you). It's about priorities and my priorities have had to change.
  3. Having a quiet child means something is wrong: I know Mom worried about me. I was a reader and a writer, but didn't communicate feelings well in other ways. Also, she was very social and pushed me to be more social. She meant well, and some would say she was right to try. But my basic personality was like my dad's, quiet and bookish. Social functions were not my cup of tea. Right or wrong, Mom's pushing me to socialize didn't take.

Our parents were products of the people who raised them, as their parents were products of the people who raise them. Most of us had parents who did their best to give us a good childhood. I know mine did. I'm sure my kids could make a nice, long list of things I did wrong, even though I've always had their best interest at heart. That is the nature of parenthood.

Mom, you were wonderful—even if you did push me into going to my prom with a guy I barely knew because you were so sure I shouldn't miss such an important event. But all is forgiven.

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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