Changing Roles, Words from a Daughter Learning to Parent a Parent

changing roles - parenting your parents

Changing roles from being a well-adjusted adult child to parenting your own parents is a difficult process. Emotionally, it’s like being in a silent fog, lost in the thick of it. Without a clue which way to turn, you find you have to explore them all, hitting dead ends and turning back only to discover yet another path. Some changes can be a big jolt and some gradual, but either way, there’s always a shift and one that you need to adapt to.

An unexpected call that my father was rushed to hospital blindsided me and my family. I was sitting in a café when I got the call, sipping a cappuccino and thinking about my day and all the little things I had to organise. Immediately, my body entered an uncomfortable state as I tried to compute what was being said. My dad, my anchor, had lost capacity. My head buzzed and ached, and my mind whirred with the fact that I was an airplane ride away.

I’ve lived at opposite ends of the country to my parents for a long time. I’ve always felt like a situation that saw one of them hospitalised would be manageable, unproblematic. There are plenty of planes and trains, after all. What I didn’t plan for was the power of emotion. 

It’s funny that although our emotional well-being drives so much of what we do, when we think about what might happen in the future, we often don’t take into account how our emotions could affect us. Yet these reactive emotions, when they do occur, are so beyond our control in the moment that they send our preconceived failsafe plans out of the window.

I suddenly found that the reality of my situation was very different from anything I’d imagined before.

In that moment that I got the call, and the moments that followed, I completely forgot that I was a wife and a mother. I forgot that I had professional responsibilities and a personal life. All that mattered right there and then was that I was a daughter, and as the only child, I needed and wanted to be there.

For the following weeks and months, I moved through my silent fog with all its confusing paths. We were constantly planning and managing my father’s health fluctuations over and over, like a rollercoaster. The fluctuations became less dangerous as they had and saw him back home, with his health in a more even state. But my world had shifted a little. I was changing roles.

During this time, I had endless conversations with medical teams and services advocating for my dad when he could not. Asking the right questions (after trying to figure out what questions to ask). Insisting he received certain types of scans. And ensuring he was actually being cared for properly, like times when he fell and dealing with legal paperwork. It’s so easy to fall into the grey areas of accessing support and advice, not to mention funding. I really began to wonder whether all the various professionals involved ever saw him as a real person? 

In these situations, there’s an overwhelming pressure of responsibility.

It’s harrowing to see others treat our parents like a piece of data, passed around from one department to the next. However, all are trying their best. And all we can do is our best and trust the process, but is that good enough?

Of course, there was also my home life to handle too as my role changed. As I think so many women feel so often, I was torn—managing others’ expectations at the cost of my own. I found myself compressing my feelings, and this got harder and harder, until the emotion would come in an outburst, spilling out in tears, and sometimes rage—at home, in cabs, at the airport. I felt guilty no matter what I did, and guilty that I wasn’t enough. And I felt judged—for my actions, for my desperate pleas, for the uncontrolled crying, for panicking, rambling, finding release in eating… the list goes on.

All I could do was focus on the practicalities I had to deal with on both sides of my life, and in between, I imagined the scenarios that had not even occurred yet, in a bid to try and prepare myself for the unforeseen.

Perhaps we all feel like this even on a normal day with the judgement of social media hanging over us—judging our looks, our abilities, our mum skills—but when times are tough, that judgement feels so much more intense because we’re in a different mindset. There wasn’t anything or anyone—including my husband—that could comfort me; I removed myself from my social life and even stopped exercising. All I could do was focus on the practicalities I had to deal with on both sides of my life, and in between, I imagined the scenarios that had not even occurred yet, in a bid to try and prepare myself for the unforeseen.

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Therapy helped me look at me, pushing me to think by asking the question: how do I feel?

I wasn’t in a good place and recognised the signs of depression and heightened anxiety. I had friends tell me to try and pace myself, but it wasn’t that easy, and the doctor all-too-quickly suggested tablets for depression, but I knew that wasn’t the answer for me. Therapy helped me look at me, pushing me to think by asking the question: how do I feel? I was lost in my fog, finding it hard to understand how to cope with my sadness and with my changing role of parenting a parent. And when asked that question, I found it hard to sit with the grief that had risen in me. Knowing it would never go back to the way it was before, I really did not want to explore it. 

They say consistency is key, but when you’re faced with this kind of situation, nothing in life can be consistent. And so we have to think outside the box to try and be happier. I began to cling to positive affirmations and identified ways to find comfort for myself. The first step involved recognising one thing—just one—that I had done that day that I could be happy about. It could be as simple as going for a walk.

Discovering that comfort, for me, actually lay in the small things. Enjoying an extra-hot cappuccino. Taking photographs on my walks, stopping and taking in beautiful flowers and nature, Joyful Jump Time’ on a mini trampoline helped comfort my body’s tension. I explored many things. These escapisms have been vital for recovery and transition. 

A toolkit started to take shape for my self-care.

A toolkit started to take shape for my self-care. Speaking to family, when I was open to it. Drawing and listening to music worked to distract from the intrusive thoughts I was having and carried me away on comforting journeys. Reaching for a book on meditation. A friend gave me a book called Poems for Stillness. The line ‘When we cease striving, we are happy’ really struck a chord with me for finding a balance of headspace—don’t try too hard, it reminded me. I couldn’t handle a big commitment while all this was going on, but I needed something to occupy my mind—an important element for one’s Zen energy and more. In all of this, I was able to ‘cease striving’ and just be.

And so, with my toolkit of comfort in hand, I was able to carry on with my new role change. This meant continuing to advocate for my dad and be supportive in more areas that were needed. Sorting through a parent’s paperwork feels very intrusive—it’s something I wish we’d done long ago, together, so that I could have known in advance where all the important documents are, plus ask questions. But at least it made me laugh when I came across many cutouts of an article my dad had saved titled ‘Don’t Panic!’—a true sign, just when I needed it.

In that hug, I felt years of emotion: no longer the adult child, now the parent to the parent.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget the feelings that our parents must have—their realisation of being old, vulnerable even, and having memory fluctuations. It can be hugely frustrating for us while we try to parent them. They have their reasons, and nurturing that is important. I do wish for more time in the past; I had asked more questions. But listening to our parents’ voices, and hearing their opinions when they’re able to voice them rationally, can help us feel confident and supported when the difficult decisions arise, and they have no voice to use.

On my recent visit to my dad, I reached over and gave him a kiss, which turned into a demanding hug, where I didn’t want to let go. I had to smile when I felt a pat on the back and heard a ‘Right, shall we get a cup of tea?’ And I tried desperately to hold back the silent tears that were streaming down my cheeks.

Then I realised that this response is healthy, isn’t it? Remember that question: how do I feel? Our feelings always come back to the very core of ourselves and often are connected to our childhoods. In that hug, I felt years of emotion: no longer the adult child, now the parent to the parent. By recognising how we are feeling in the moment, we can start to seek the comfort we need to help us forward out of the fog and have a little acceptance of the changing role. So, look up, look around you. Find what comfort you can in the small things to make you smile. And take pleasure in sharing with them how your day has been.

So I will finish with a few questions to ponder when changing roles:

  • How do you cope in heightened stress? 
  • How can you find a way to be still? 
  • Who do you lean on for support? 
  • What self-care are you going to explore?
  • How do you find comfort when things are so hard? 
  • Do you know how to access that inner womanly strength? 

Words by GIGI

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