It was a quick stop at the grocery store, nothing that should have taken more than ten minutes.
My two boys (two and four years old at the time) were causing chaos on every aisle. When we finally made it to the checkout I nodded approval for them to get a cookie from the Harris Teeter free box of cookies (with which I have a love/hate relationship). As I was swiping my card I heard a loud crash, looked up and saw my four-year-old standing in the middle of a pile of cookies with tears welling up, while my two-year-old was gathering up cookies like they were candy from a busted piñata.
Horrified, I made eye contact with the store manager who smiled kindly and said, “Don’t worry, it’s just that season of life”.
It’s true, I am in that season of life. The season of scraped knees, potty training and complete exhaustion. I use the seasonal metaphor all the time when explaining away yawns during late afternoon meetings or when a co-worker notices my fourth cup of coffee. It’s a common way to express our combined joy and frustration with the stage of life that we’re experiencing. We’re all going to miss this season once it’s gone, right?!
I’m also aware that one person’s “caring for small children” season isn’t the same as another’s. Right now I’m raising small children while also focusing on my career, while I have many friends who have chosen to spend this season staying home with their children. I love that we live in a time and society where we have those options! So while I always understood seasons to be unique to each person, I hadn’t given much thought to the possibility that a person might face more than one season at the same time.
Then my mom got sick. It was a long road from suspicion that something was wrong to a diagnosis, but the initial symptoms began in the early days of my “small children” season. When we finally got a diagnosis, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), my brothers and I were thrust into a new and unfamiliar season – caring for a parent.
It felt disjointed. This was the season where mom should be coming to watch the kids for a weekend or providing us with advice on how to sooth a teething infant. We didn’t expect we’d be having conversations about when she would need to move to the next phase of care at her assisted living facility or researching the ethics of feeding tubes.
It’s fair to say this wasn’t something for which we were well prepared. We scrambled to get our footing and make plans. That part was really tough. We were still coming to terms with the diagnosis and what it meant for mom’s future. As the details were decided and the shock wore off, there were new, unanticipated hurdles.
Guilt, which crept in over time, is one of those hurdles with which I still struggle. There’s the guilt of not knowing what to prioritize between kids, husband, mom, and job, feeling like the answer is “all of the above”. There’s the guilt of being hundreds of miles away while my brother and sister-in-law bear the burden of being local and all that it entails. There’s the guilt of snapping at my husband because “he couldn’t possibly understand”, when all he’s trying to do is help. Then there’s the guilt of focusing too much on my own sadness when the one really suffering is my mom.
I wish I could say that I have processed all these emotions and have a prescription for how to handle the entanglement of these difficult seasons. I don’t. However, I have learned a lot in the process. Here are a few of those lessons:
I’m not alone. I have grown closer with friends who have also experienced this stage far too early in life. I’ve been there for and cried with them with an empathy that didn’t exist before. In turn, they have supported me, and there’s some peace in knowing that someone else understands. I’ve become a better friend.
The day to day juggle with my small boys feels less overwhelming than it did before. Perhaps because they’re getting older and easier to manage, but I think much of it is due to a connection I feel with my mom now that I’m a parent. She had small children close in age and she kicked butt, so I strive to be like her. I’ve become a better parent.
I’ve noticed the vulnerability and compassion of co-workers and neighbors who I usually find little in common with when I discover that they, too, are caring for a sick or aging parent. Their parent may be decades older than my mom, but the grief of a drawn out loss transcends generations. I’ve become a better listener.
The appreciation I feel for my siblings for their sacrifices and shared pain has brought us closer. I now understand why relationships of all kinds can fall apart during tragic situations, and I am so grateful for their steady support and love. I’ve become a better sister.
Caring for an aging or sick parent is always a tough season. When it’s unexpected and combined with other challenging times, the well-intentioned “It’s just that season of life” rings false, as it implies a simplicity that is no longer true. But that’s ok, because life isn’t simple and sadness and beauty are intermingled everywhere.
In this particular journey I believe I’ve grown and become a better, more compassionate person, and that’s something I know makes my mom proud.