Parenting your parents

Do your parents call your grandparents by their first names? My dad has called his dad “Ray” for my whole life. When did that start? And will I ever call my parents Jeff and Berny? That possibility always seemed unlikely, up until about 10 months ago.

10 months ago my parents went through a pretty nasty separation. I’ll spare you the dramatic details but it ended with my mom moving out in May of 2019. A few months later they began to go to couples therapy. They started spending more time together, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, talking about their mistakes, etc. Things seemed better. But then last night I got a call from my crying, 50-year-old, mother telling me my father has changed his mind about her moving back in 3 days before she was set to do so.

The point of me telling you this is not a woe-is-me story, I pay a very expensive therapist to hear that side of the story. No, I think this experience has brought something else to my attention… Throughout this past year, I have felt like I have had to grow up and parent my parents.

I remember when I was 15 years old some girls were being really mean to me at school. My mom, who has never been a protective or overbearing mother, called the girls and told them how sad I was. The next day I came to school and those girls apologized to me. Sticking your neck out for your child when they are hurt is a natural parenting move, but sticking your neck out for your parents when you yourself are still a child is not natural. Over the past 10 months, I have spent countless hours consoling my parents, offering advice, and worrying about my brothers who are still living at home with them. I love my family and will always want to be there for them, but I felt like the mother who has to call the mean girls at school in order to protect her child. All of this while I’m nursing my own grief over the loss of a family structure I held so dear.

So when, as children, do we become the responsible adults and our parents become the ones in need of care? I’ve seen it happen outside my experience as well. My boyfriend’s brother and sister-in-law have taken over as the patriarch and matriarch of his family, taking care of my boyfriend’s parents and all of the siblings as well. It’s such a strange shift in roles. One day you are a child dependent on your parents for just about everything, then you’re thrown in the world expected to fend for yourself, and then, before you know it, your parents are crawling back to you for the same support you needed from them.

I wish I knew the answer on how to navigate this. Over the past 10 months, I think I’ve aged 10 years trying to figure it out. My hair is literally falling out and I have gained like 10 pounds. What I have learned is this… when you are young your parents hide the bad stuff to protect you. But when you get older they can’t hide it from you anymore. You’ve seen the world for the shitty place it is, including their bullshit. Your illusion of them being these ‘all-knowing being’ is shattered and you see them for what they truly are, just people. People who make mistakes and need forgiveness the same way you do. I think about how horrible I was when I was a preteen and the patience my parents had with me.

When it comes down to it, caring for your aging parents is a part of the circle of life. In my research for this blog post I noticed a lot of people struggle with this. Some have trouble setting boundaries with their parents, and some run back to their parents for safety only to find them no longer there (mentally,physically, emotionally). No matter how you experience this shift, it’s devastating as a child. Whether you learn to be the responsible caregiver through a traumatic event, or simply as your parent becomes too old to function alone, we have to give them the same patience and love they have given us our whole lives.

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