Caregiver or Mom?

Caregiver or mom? The two are blended into one role when our children are small. As they grow, we let go of small bits of caregiving. They learn to drink from a cup, use a spoon, pull off their own shirt and shoes and brush their own teeth. They become potty trained. They go to school and learn to write their own name. They get their own snack and in time learn to feed themselves. Perhaps they cook dinner for the whole family once a week. If they have smart parents, they learn to wash their own clothes. Slowly our children grow and become independent and eventually are able to live on their own. They don’t need us to be a caregiver, but they will always need us to be a mom.

This is what I’ve seen happen in other families. It isn’t what I’ve experienced.

My daughter will be 23 tomorrow but has less skills than she did when she was 10. Rather than gaining independence, she has become more dependent. Her illness has slowly taken away her motor skills and her hearing and now her vision is declining. Her cognitive abilities are reduced and something as simple as choosing which shirt to wear becomes an enormous task. So I help. I help her dress. Help her brush her teeth. Help her eat and bathe and use the toilet. We seem to be living in reverse.

The tricky part is balancing her need for a caregiver with my need to be mom. Her need for constant support with her desire for independence. My need to keep her safe with my hunger for freedom. We’re both trying to figure this out. When am I the caregiver? When I am mom? When do I make decisions that support her life and when do I make decisions to support my own?

A caregiver can be more methodical; I set my heart aside and take care of her daily needs. It doesn’t matter how frightened I am or tired, it only matters that she get enough nutrition and stay hydrated. I can manage doctor appointments and therapies and other caregivers that come to relieve me. Caregivers don’t need much sleep. Moms do.

This mom is frightened and angry and sad. This mom is sick and tired of the call in the night from a daughter who can’t get out of bed for a drink of water anymore. But this mom is also grateful that the call in the night still happens. My daughter, my beautiful, funny, kind-hearted daughter is turning 23 tomorrow after every doctor said she’d never see 20. We’re planning a party and celebrating the wonder that is Rhia. I am in awe of this child… this young woman… who disrupted my own life with her needs and curiosity. I am honored that of all the potential moms in the world, this spark of wonder chose me.

We still haven’t figured out the balance, and maybe we can’t. Balancing the heart with the mind and independence with dependence might be impossible. Sometimes Rhia is as sick of me as I am of the constant caregiving. She’d love to walk out the front door and find her own life with her own friends in another state! I’d love to help her pack.

But here we are, our lives entangled by Mitochondrial Disease. I’ll keep trying to learn when to be mom and when to step back and be the caregiver. A caregivers primary role is to support independence. Maybe that’s a mom’s role too?

How can I help?

I am blessed with great friends who want to help. They send me notes on bad days and funny messages on Facebook. They text me a cyber hug. “How can I help?” they ask. They know how hard it can be to be a full time caregiver of an adult child. “Please, let me know what I can do.” But the answer isn’t that simple.

How can they help me with my daughter’s emotional distress as she loses her ability to walk?

How can they help me understand her on the days her speech is incomprehensible?

How can they help me interpret the world so she understands what is happening?

How can they help me when she has a meltdown in the grocery store and we have to leave?

How can they help me manage her day to maximize her energy and physical abilities, which change constantly?

How can they help me when she’s so lonely she cries because she misses her cousins?

How can they help me when I’m exhausted and in pain and need to rest my worn out body but she needs help in the middle of the night with a dizzy spell?

The problem isn’t the day to day stuff, like bills and errands. Sure, it would be great to have extra help putting gas in the car and cooking dinner. But those are the ordinary things that actually help me cope. Ordinary things, like laundry and gardening, cleaning the floor, organizing the pantry, and dusting help me stay grounded. The extraordinary things, like dealing with Social Security and Medi-Cal and my daughter’s inability to dress herself anymore, are the things that overwhelm me. But those are the things others can’t help me with.

So how do I answer “How can I help?” I do need help, but I don’t know how to specify¬† any more than I can figure out how to stop Rhia’s tremors. But if you have an idea, let me know.

Because right now, I’m emotionally overwhelmed supporting my daughter as she loses more physical and mental skills. I can’t figure out how to help myself.