She is 65 years young, vigorous, a retired professor, who loves nothing more than being outdoors. She lives in the country, by herself, and enjoys watching the birds feed at her backyard feeder. On Friday evening, she went out to fill the feeder and slipped on some ice. Her body twisted, and she heard the bones in her legs break. Somehow, miraculously, she dragged herself through the snow, up some steps, back into the house and called 911. Rushed to the local hospital, then the regional hospital, then into surgery, a few days in the hospital, a week in the rehab unit, and then up to 4 months in a non-weight bearing cast.
She’s my mother.
The fall was Friday night. Saturday morning I flew to my home state and I’m spending the week here, splitting my time between the hospital and her house, holding her hand, listening to the doctors, and trying to figure out how to get things ready for her to come home. I’m grateful it was my spring break week (otherwise known as the week I was planning to work 100 hours to “catch up”). But in a few days, I need to leave, go back to finish out the semester, leaving her here, not even out of the hospital yet. I’ll be back as soon as the semester is over to spend time with her and maybe help her figure out her next moves, the ones that will take her into the city or away from the ice, but will also tear her from the birds, trees, hills, and wildlife she loves.
This is not my first time finding that a big grant proposal, an almost-done paper, or a stack of grading pale in importance compared to taking care of family. The cancer in 2007, surgeries in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were previous tangoes with elder care. And I’m hardly alone. There’s even a term for people caring for an elderly parent, while raising kids of their own: “the sandwich generation.” The Pew Research Center frames it in terms of financial burden, but the emotional and time costs are also huge. Zuska has done an amazingly good service in shedding the light on what’s ahead for many of us. As she says: “Elder care is a chronic unpredictable set of minor and major disasters plus daily repetitive tasks that are always urgent and never completed.”
Those of us with family members who have health needs care beyond belief about making sure our loved ones are safe, comfortable, and not left alone. But we are not super-human, and there will be tradeoffs between eldercare, parenting, work productivity, and self care. The number of hours in a day doesn’t increase just because your parent had a nasty fall. And just like babies don’t suddenly go away when maternity leave is up, parents don’t go away when a crisis is over and you go back to work.
When we talk about work-life balance, family-friendly workplaces, reasonable expectations for tenure and promotion, family leave and so on, we need to recognize that this isn’t just about babies and young children. It’s about all of us with any sort of strong personal connection with another human being.