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A Mother's Day Conundrum

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Psychologist Paula Caplan describes the complicated balancing act involved in honoring her mother while caring for her.

I've had to bite my tongue lately to keep from screaming, "No! You are so wrong!" Here is what happens: People hear that my 88-year-old mother sustained a serious leg wound from a fall and was released to live with me while she recovers. Intending to show that they understand what that's like for me, they say, "Ah, so now she's the child." Sometimes they use psychology jargon, concluding "This is a mother-daughter role reversal."

Rather than screaming, I respond, "Actually, it's not at all like that. It would be much simpler if it were. It is far more complex, delicate, and nuanced."

Let me tell you about my mother, who goes by the name Tac. My late father would introduce her by saying her name, followed by, "as in 'sharp as a.'" And indeed she is. Since my father's death, despite never having worked in the world of commerce, she has continually asked crucial questions and made important suggestions about the businesses he created. She is generally a resourceful problem solver. She plays duplicate bridge and often wins. She is intensely interested in political issues and culture and has insights and strong opinions about it all. In summary, she is of very sound mind. She also has a great sense of humor. She has always treasured time when she can be on her own.

Furthermore, in my nearly 65 years of life, she has supported almost everything I have done and offered valuable, often key insights. When I was growing up, my friends who could not talk to their mothers about personal matters would come to Tac for advice.

When she had an automobile accident nearly three years ago, she gave her family the remarkable gift of concluding on her own that she needed to stop driving. This was all the more admirable and brave, because "fiercely independent" is an understatement when applied to her.

Picture Tac, then, when I brought her to my house from the hospital after she had been on intravenous antibiotics for a gaping leg wound, and the visiting nurse taped to the leg one end of a tube that at the other end was hooked to a heavy machine that had to be plugged into the wall, creating a gentle vacuum suction to speed the healing. She was ordered to use a walker at all times and for some weeks to walk as little as possible.

Does the following sound as simple as a mother-child role reversal? When she wanted food, she had to ask me for it. I especially wanted her to have whatever sounded good to her, given all the limitations with which she was suddenly having to live. If she were a child or were seriously cognitively impaired, I would have chosen the foods, prepared them, and put them on the table. Instead, I would ask her what she wanted. She would answer. Then I would remember that she loves raspberries and that we had some fresh ones. So I would ask if she wanted some raspberries, too. She would say, "Yes." Then, although she was not complaining of the constraints on her, I would glance at my usually active mother lying flat on the sofa with her leg elevated and that heavy machine with the tubing attached to her, and "Extra sharp cheddar!" I would think. "She loves that cheese!" So I would ask her how would she like some of that.

At some point she would tell me she thought those would be enough items for her lunch. Trying to find the right path—as though there is one right one—among respect variously for her need to be as independent as possible, her human need for some choice and enjoyment, her 88 years of knowledge and experience and being accustomed to taking care of herself, and her stated worry about causing me too much trouble feels like the least achievable balancing act I have ever attempted. It's made even more complicated by my appreciation for all that she has done for me and my wish to make sure she does not feel like that child to which some well-meaning people want to compare her.

The description of all of the above as simple role reversal is not just inaccurate. It shows at best that the speaker has no clue what is really going on, and at worst that they are caught in the grip of the hoary tradition of demeaning mothers, underestimating their abilities and the nuances of their lives, especially when they are old. They assume that when a mother needs any care and thus cannot provide constant nurturance to others, she is no longer a mother but a child. This is also in the tradition of demeaning any woman who, by providing care for another person, is thereby "acting like a mother." As I have said for decades, mothers are such a scapegoated group that virtually anything associated with mothers at some point is negatively cast. Even men who "act like mothers" by investing a lot of their time and energy in taking care of their children are often called lazy or—horrors!—unmanly for doing this work.

One way to mark Mother's Day is to vow to reduce offensive stereotypes about mothers and others who fill caregiving roles. It is a way to honor both our mothers and all nurturers.

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