Don’t Let Caring for Your Aging Parents Kill You: Eight Keys to Sanity

 

I have been a caregiver for my mother since I was 12 years old.

Sometimes I think it will kill me.

This is not metaphor. Caring for aging parents is a well-recognized health risk. In my own family, a stretch of intense caregiving precipitated a life-threatening health crisis in a young and previously healthy person I love.

November is ‘caregiver month,’ and smiling ad campaigns of well-dressed middle-aged children gazing warmly at Mom while they dispense medication have prompted this post – an honest look at what caregiving has been like for me, and things that have helped me survive it. I hope they’ll help you survive it too.

To anyone who hasn’t walked this path, some of the things I write here may sound ruthless. But caregiving is ruthless – especially when you may be doing it over and over again, or concurrently, for two or four (or more) parents. The research on what caring for an aging parent does to the caregiver is grim. The studies report an arc – the caregiver’s health and quality of life decline as the recipient’s need for care increases (even if the recipient is in a facility). As we have given care in varying intensity and duration to Anthony’s parents and to my mom, I have found this to be true. If you allow it, caregiving can be a destroyer of health, relationships, and sanity.

The crushing nature of caregiving is not the fault of the person needing care, though planning and financial resources can mitigate the worst of the strain. It is, among other things, our tragically broken healthcare system. It wasn’t always like this; as I’ve noted elsewhere, ours is the first generation in which caring for an aging parent is something that can go on for decades. It’s also the first generation in which the medical establishment seems to have completely checked out – where family is routinely expected (sometimes with breathtaking callousness) to perform complex medical procedures and the kind of intense care that was once only done by professionals in a healthcare setting. These days, unpaid/family caregivers provide 90% of long term care.

There’s plenty of advice available, and some of it even works – when you have adequate financial resources and stable, emotionally healthy parents who are cognitively intact and still able to understand how their choices impact others. When you don’t, then most of the advice falls on a continuum from merely useless to outright infuriating. Here are eight things I’ve actually found helpful.

  1. Understand that you are the only one looking out for you, and act accordingly. At some point, your parent will be unaware of or unconcerned about the impact of their needs on you. If they have a history of being emotionally unhealthy or abusive, or you have a difficult relationship, this might be the case from the beginning. If it’s solely due to their worsening health it might be much later. Whenever it happens, facing it is not easy. It’s also not easy to comprehend that health professionals, who we’ve been taught to view as the people with the answers, don’t actually have answers, or time to care about you. They are there only to manage an immediate medical crisis; the system doesn’t allow them space to wonder how close you are to the breaking point or how everyone is muddling through at home. You have a responsibility to the family you created (your spouse and children), and to yourself, to come out the other side of this OK. This means you are going to have to say no sometimes, even in the face of judgment or disapproval. Destroying yourself, especially when you can’t change the ultimate outcome, does not serve anyone – and if your parents were able to be their best selves, they wouldn’t want that either.
  2. Decide what you can give. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and limits. You might easily be able to do something (a medical procedure, intimate care) that I could not do, and vice versa. Think about what you can reasonably do, and say no to the rest. I know, for example, that one of my limits is that I cannot give my mom care in my home. I need my home as a place of retreat, a place to be with the family I created, to regroup so I can stay healthy.
  3. Just because you did it once doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. Sometimes the only way you know you can’t or shouldn’t do something is after you’ve done it. You can still say no when it comes up again. I recently spent three days and nights providing intense care for my mother in her small apartment. Given my difficult history with her, I found this to be immensely triggering and it pushed me to the breaking point. If anything like that comes up again, she will have to have home health care.
  4. The person who gives the help sets the terms. If you’ve decided you can help, by all means, give what you can. But you set the terms, not your parent. This is especially true if you have a toxic or abusive history with your parents. Mom can afford help with household chores but wants you to do it so she doesn’t have ‘a stranger in the house?’ The senior center offers rides to the doctor but Dad would rather have you take time off work to drive him? Say no, and be willing to weather their disapproval (see number one). This is most definitely a marathon, not a sprint, so you’ll need to stop and breathe wherever you can – and save your energy for the things you can’t outsource. It’s better for you, and better for your parent, if you’re not exhausted and resentful.
  5. Self-care: maybe it’s not what you think. Self-care is often framed as doing things like getting a massage or taking a hot bath; seeing friends or going to yoga class, and it can certainly be all those things. But I’ve started to look at it as taking care of tomorrow’s me. I’ll do a load of laundry when I don’t feel like it, because then tomorrow’s me will have something nice to wear; I’ll keep my chiropractic appointment even when everything in my life screams CANCEL, because then tomorrow’s me will feel better.
  6. Nobody gets to judge you. I mentioned I am my mother’s sole caregiver. However, there are plenty of people that, while they are not interested in doing the heavy (or any) lifting, are perfectly willing to criticize me for the things I do or don’t do. The only sanity-saving response to this (credit Anthony) is, “If you’d like that done differently, go ahead and take it on.” Delivered with warmth and a smile, of course. Or not – you choose.
  7. Make the social worker your best friend. In the pac-man maze of aging care, social workers are the power pills – they help you slay the monsters. Wherever you encounter a social worker attached to your parent’s care – at a hospital or facility, at your local agency for the aging – use their resources to the fullest extent. Treat them as though they’re made of gold. This is the person with the knowledge and ability to get you and your parent real support.
  8. Second guessing: just don’t. It’s possible to scrutinize every single thing you did or didn’t do, looking for mistakes, reasons for self-loathing, and speculation on whether a different choice would have changed the outcome. Here’s the thing: you’re looking back at a situation knowing how it turned out. That’s information you didn’t have when you were in it up to your neck. This way lies madness. When those thoughts come up, I rely on a mantra: “Oops, I don’t go there,” or “We all did our best.” I’m sure you can come up with a mantra that sounds cooler and more Zen. When I need extra help with this, I use tools like cognitive-behavioral therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, or Byron Katie’s Loving What Is. Or, well, Netflix.

As a caregiver, you’re doing one of the hardest jobs there is, so cut yourself some slack. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, to be human. And most of all, take good care of you – you’re the only one we’ve got.

Five Things We’re Doing So Our Kid Won’t Hate Us When We’re Old

 

People talk a lot about making memories with your children when they’re young. But lately I’ve been thinking about the memories I do NOT want to leave my daughter with.

The experience of aging, and of having aging parents, has changed dramatically in the space of a single generation. Our lifespans are much longer than they once were – but our ‘healthspans’ are not. Caring for aging parents was once a few months or, at most a year or two, at the end of their long full lifetimes. Now, it can go on for years, or even decades.

Anthony and I have spent a number of years now being caregivers for very ill parents in a medical system that is not set up to provide any kind of real support, and still operates under the assumption that the adult child (most often the daughter or daughter in law, if we’re honest) will be able to take an elderly parent into their home and provide unpaid fulltime care. (Because, I guess, everyone has a large barrier free house, unlimited resources, a strong back, and no need to work?)

We have been doing this for so long, and some of it has been so searing, that the reality, feelings and memories of this kind of caregiving have actually obscured my experience of our parents as parents. I can barely recall the mother who sewed me a fancy dress every year for Christmas; the father-in-law who brought me my favorite cookies every time he visited when I was pregnant. But I sure can recall having to fight with hospital staff to make them understand my parent lives alone when doing discharge planning. I remember the awful feeling that we were drained, exhausted, ill, broke, and in over our heads and nobody gave a shit. They just wanted to check off the box on their discharge forms. I remember giving until I was empty and then being criticized for not doing more or doing it right. Never hearing ‘thank you.’ Waking up in the morning and thinking that if I never saw another day, it would be a relief. (Therapy and medication are the reasons I’m not there still.)

The impact this has had on our family, Anthony’s sibling’s family, and our collective health and wellbeing can’t be overstated. And I know for sure I don’t want memories like these to overwrite Adri’s experience of us as her parents. This is what we’re doing to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Actually admitting that one day we might not be able to care for ourselves. This seems to have been the hardest step for our parents, and it’s the one that kept them from doing the planning that might have spared them, and us, the worst of it. Not because they were clueless assholes; this generational shift came as a surprise to them too. Based on their experience with their own parents, they had no idea they could outlive their health by so long. We have the benefit of that knowledge, so we are planning for old age, including the possibility that we may need help at the end of our lives – and we’re planning like our kid is not part of the picture. First, because you never know; but mostly, because this is the way we ensure that the things we have experienced with our aging parents don’t happen to her. Everyone is responsible for taking care of themselves; even when you’re old, and even when you have kids.

Buying long term care and life insurance. NOW. Medicare does not pay for nursing homes or long term in-home care, folks. Does. Not. Pay. So if you don’t have some other way to pay for it, you will be forced to spend every penny you’ve accumulated in this lifetime on your care (that includes draining your retirement accounts and impoverishing your spouse if you’re married) until you’re destitute and qualify for Medicaid. And Medicaid nursing homes are usually not easily mistaken for the Ritz. Long term care insurance is relatively cheap and easy to get; it protects our assets AND ensures that, should we need care, we have a choice about who provides it and where. We can use that coverage for care in our home, where if we relied on Medicaid, we may be forced to be in a facility. As for life insurance, we used an online calculator to find out how much we’d need for our family to maintain our current standard of living if one of us died. We’ve found term insurance to be the most affordable option, and ours includes a clause that we can access those funds early in the event of a terminal diagnosis.

Funding retirement before college. If your parents were able to pay for your education, good on you, and on them. But that was not our story – we are still paying off student debt, and college is a LOT cheaper than end of life care, so we fund our retirement and insurance before we fund her college. You can’t get a loan or a scholarship for assisted living. She can thank us later.

Being nice to the spouse-in-law. OK, we’re not here yet, but it’s our plan. Unless we die suddenly, despite all our planning, it’s likely our kid’s spouse is going to have some kind of impact on our old-age care, and vice-versa. So our plan is to not be assholes to this person. (Closely related: expressing kindness and gratitude for anything Adri or her spouse do for us.)

Communicating our expectations to our kid. Even now we tell her that we do not want or expect her to be the one who cares for us in our old age – that we are planning and insuring ourselves for that need. Granted, everyone is going to be in a different place on this, especially if they haven’t had the experiences we have. But we want her to be nothing but our beloved child, right up until the end. We want to be free to continue to enjoy each other, without her feeling responsibility for our care. It’s also a privacy and dignity issue for me; if I can’t dress and toilet myself, I’d rather it be done by someone I’m paying to do it, than by my husband or child.

We are still in the thick of it, sandwiched firmly between the needs of our aging parents and those of our young child, so there may be more added to the list before we’re through. How do we cope? That’s another conversation entirely.

The time I gave up sugar and it pissed me off

Every time I’ve seen my doctor for the last four years, she’s asked me if I’m ready to give up sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Usually, I laugh. I mean, I’ve seen the articles that recommend giving these up to improve PMS, perimenopause, and menopause symptoms; they’re everywhere. But the advice was so ubiquitous it always irritated me – like telling depressed people to get more physical activity. It felt like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: no, this is BAD, stop talking to me about vegetables.

But this spring, Anthony and I read this article in the UK magazine The Guardian. It tracks the research on cardiovascular disease and obesity from the 1950s and lays out step by step how research was cherry-picked to make fat the bad actor in these conditions – and how some of the same researchers who were bribed to do this ended up in the highest levels of authority on nutrition in the US, and based our dietary guidelines on that faulty research. It’s a conspiracy worthy of Big Tobacco.

And then we read the book Fat Chance, by endocrinologist Robert Lustig. This book is mentioned in the Guardian article and carefully lays out exactly what sugar does to your body.  No, you’re not safe if you’re skinny, and yes, it’s terrifying. It explains how and why sugar is now in every-fucking-thing that you don’t make yourself, so we’re getting loads more of it than we even know. And how our (screwed up) metabolisms actually drive our behavior – until it’s no longer a matter of choice. That last part was important to me; it removes the shadow of judgment from people who are struggling with weight or health.

Both our families are rife with metabolic disease, and we are watching some beloved people battle through its final stages. It’s ugly and awful; you don’t just die, you spend years in misery (along with your family) and then you die. So we just….quit. We stopped drinking soda, mostly stopped eating sweet stuff. We looked at what we ate that was processed and contained sugar (spaghetti sauce, bread, yogurt, cereal, frozen meals) and, if we really liked it, found lower-sugar alternatives or made homemade versions without sugar. But that’s all we did. We didn’t go crazy; I eat dark chocolate almost every day. We still have some kind of treat or dessert about once a week, we just do it intentionally instead of mindlessly after every meal. Pizza still finds its way into our house about once every week too. And we didn’t address (yet) the quality of our other carbohydrates – we still ate white bread, white rice, pasta.

So what happened?

Anthony happened. I mean, he HAPPENED. Doing nothing else but avoiding sugar, he lost about ten pounds but looks like he lost more. A few weeks ago I came across a photo of him from a year before we gave up the white stuff. I was shocked; right now he looks ten years younger than he did in that photo. He’s sleek and glowing and annoyingly energetic, and it happened to him fast – by the end of the second month.

I complained to Anthony that I wasn’t seeing any visible changes (dammit, I want to be sleek and glowing and annoyingly energetic!). He blurted out, “Oh my God, your moods are so much better when you don’t eat sugar.” And then looked like a deer in headlights. (Fortunately for him, he said this to post-sugar me, so he lived to tell the tale. Poor man.)

At my annual physical, when I had been at this a little over three months, I weighed in about four pounds lighter than I was a year ago (my weight was within normal limits when I started), and all of it seemed to have come off my midsection. My cholesterol had dropped to 162. And the perimenopausal breast pain that was no longer controlled by medication and would wake me up in the night for two solid weeks every month, was gone. (Premenstrual bitchiness still solidly intact though; I guess one can’t have everything.)

Are we imposing this on our kid? Oh hells no. Primarily because we’ve always just offered what we thought were reasonable food choices and let her make the decisions on what and how much. But also because she’s an adolescent, and demonizing or forbidding sugar would pretty much guarantee she’d be shotgunning Mountain Dew every time she was out of our sight. I figure her sugar consumption is being reduced simply because there’s less of it in the food we eat at home, which is something. And, fortunately for us, she’s an adventurous kid who loves to cook and try new things, so she’s getting interested herself in finding new recipes and new ways of eating things we love.

I admit, part of me is pissed that the benefits were so clear. I kind of wanted it to be bullshit so I could just go back to eating the way I did before. To believing I was doing pretty well, and that if I’m not significantly overweight I must be healthy. But the farther in I am, the less I want to go back. I was surprised at how relatively easily this has become a way of life. I still have days where I crave sugar (especially after I’ve just had some – a little seems to turn on the switch and I want more), but really only the first few days were difficult. I take L-Glutamine as needed; it usually makes a sugar craving go away in about ten minutes.

My doc is thrilled and a little smug. But she better keep her hands off my coffee and wine.

Origins

If you ever did anything right, I’d FAINT!

I was eight. My bedroom in our trailer was so tiny we couldn’t both stand in front of the open closet. So I sat on the bed, sweaty palms on the purple comforter. She stood, screaming, her face contorted in rage.

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU?! YOU CAN’T BE THIS STUPID!

She ripped a pair of pants from a hanger in my closet. I had hung them up wrong: hadn’t matched up the side-seams before putting them on the hanger. I actually couldn’t remember being told before this that there was a wrong way to hang up pants, but I knew enough not to say that out loud. That night, I started a new page in the diary I had gotten for Christmas, the one with the little brass padlock: Things I Won’t Say To My Children.

I was ten. I got up and dressed on a Saturday morning, while she slept the long sleep of the depressed, the very ill. I watched cartoons, eating cereal in the dusty living room by the light of the flickering TV and what little daylight filtered in through the heavily curtained windows. She couldn’t see well in bright sunlight, so the windows were always covered, the air stale. I went next door to my grandparents’ house, a bright oasis of order and kindness, where Saturday mornings smelled like fresh coffee and cinnamon toast and Murphy Oil Soap. Soon there was a phone call from her, enraged. GET. HOME. NOW.

I hurried out, letting the screen door slam.

She was waiting in the kitchen. Screaming, she backed me into the corner between the trailer’s front door and the tiny pantry. She was so angry she wasn’t coherent; I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. In my anxiety, I must have grimaced, which started a fresh tirade: DO YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY!? 

No. No, I did not.

Eventually I pieced together what I had done. When I fixed my cereal, I had left open a drawer and a cupboard door in the kitchen. With her limited vision, she had run into the drawer; bumped her head on the open cabinet door. The things I did wrong could hurt her. There was no such thing as a small mistake.

I was 12. Her diabetes was uncontrolled. I  heard noises from her bedroom, coming through the paper-thin panel walls in the middle of the night. I already knew I would find her unconscious, covered in clammy sweat, moaning and shrieking, nightgown rucked around her waist, eyes rolled back in her head. Hypoglycemia: extreme low blood sugar. It happened once or twice a month. Before, I would call my grandmother when this happened. She would come over, revive her, comfort me, make things right. But now that Grandma was sick too, I was on my own.

These days, there is a highly concentrated glucagon gel made for hypoglycemic shock, that can be administered safely even if the patient is unconscious. These days, there is 911. Not then. Not there.

In my panic, I forgot exactly what Grandma did to bring her around, but I knew she had to have sugar. In the daytime, she carried sugar cubes in her purse to eat when her blood sugar was low. I found the yellow Domino’s box of sugar cubes in the kitchen cupboard (close the door) and carried them to her bedroom.

She lay on her back, eyes glazed and staring. When her mouth opened in a moan, I put a sugar cube on her tongue.

I waited. I could see the small, grainy cube in her slack mouth, unmelted.

I knew if she did not get sugar, she could slip into a coma she would never wake from. She could even die.

Nothing.

I used my hands to close her mouth, rubbed under her chin, hoping some reflex would kick in and she would chew, swallow. Wake up.

She inhaled for the next moan, and the cube disappeared. In its place, the most awful gurgling, strangling sounds.

Choking.

I was tiny for my age, about 75 pounds. I wedged my hands beneath her torso and pushed at her full-grown dead weight. Heaved. I struggled until she was on her side, and began, hesitantly, to thump her back with my open hand, like burping a baby. Still she choked and gurgled, began to thrash. I thumped harder. Harder. All up and down her back, thumping out my fear, my powerlessness, how much I loved her, needed her. How much I hated her.

Nothing as knowledgeable as the Heimlich. Just a child’s blind panic and a little bit of luck. The sugar cube flew out onto her pillow, covered in blood.

Mistakes are deadly.

She breathed easily now; but she was still unconscious, still in hypoglycemic shock, and going deeper. The moaning and thrashing had stopped; her stillness was ominous. She could still die if I did not figure this out.

A year from now I would know so much. I would know how to prick her finger and use a glucometer to measure her blood sugar. I would know how to bring her back. How to go to school on a few hours sleep. When and how to call for help if she didn’t come around. A year from now, I would be able to put on sterile gloves, a surgical mask, and administer her home dialysis treatments.

But right now, I was still a kid.

I headed back to the kitchen, opened the cupboards and stared in. Hoping for rescue, bare feet on the always-cold winter floor.

Help came in the form of a green plastic Tupperware tumbler. I recalled it in my grandmother’s hands as she stirred sugar into orange juice. I seized it (close the door), prepared the sugared juice, and took it and a straw back to her bedroom.

I heaved her onto her back again, used pillows to elevate her head. I knew what to do now. I put my index finger over the opening in the straw, trapping a bit of sugared juice inside. Slowly, painstakingly, I dribbled it into the back of her open mouth, where it ran down her throat. Never too much, or she’d start coughing and I’d have a hard time getting the straw into her mouth again.

She regained consciousness.

She began to shiver, painfully cold as she always was after such an episode. I covered her with blankets, with the dotted-Swiss bedspread, with her fuzzy winter bathrobe. I turned out the lights, returned to my own bed.

Under the purple comforter, I watched the black outside my window turn to grey.

I began to shiver, too.

 

There you are

“There are two types of people in the world: the ones who walk into a room and say, ‘Here I am!’ and those who walk into a room and say, ‘There you are.’”

I read this adage again recently in a post from one of my blogger heroes, and it struck me in a new way.

I had been thinking about it from the perspective of presentations and public speaking – which I do a lot of in my day job.

I like to think I’m a ‘there you are’ presenter. Considering and appreciating an audience comes naturally to me, and when you show up with the audience in mind rather than trying to showcase yourself, you’re more likely to connect.

The thing is, it’s not my presenting that needs work. It’s my everything else. It’s taking there you are out in the world with me.

Because that relaxed, concise and funny woman at the lectern? She’s on borrowed time. The glass slipper always falls off as I step off the risers. Meet me at the conference networking event or that evening’s reception and I’m that awkward lady with the sweaty handshake for whom mingling is death by a thousand cuts. Thank God for the cash bar.

Part of this is just being an introvert. Being alone or with a few select people, at home or in quiet places, is how I recharge. Being in public, even for something I enjoy, is a drain on my batteries from the jump. Sometimes it’s hard for people to match up my enjoyment of public speaking with my introversion, but lots of performers are introverts. We’re great when we have a prescribed role to play. It’s the freestyle social interaction that makes us wilt.

The other part…did you ever read the Judy Blume book Deenie, about the young girl who has to spend some of her formative years wearing an enormous, uncomfortable and highly visible back brace to straighten her spine? Yup, that was me – minus Deenie’s affluent family. And it turns out that visible orthotic devices are a mother-freaking MAGNET for nosiness, assumptions, and assholery. As a child and young teen I was guaranteed to draw stares most places I went, and I could make you a long list of things that have happened to me in public that range from breathtaking insensitivity to downright cruelty. And things that sometimes happen even now, since there’s still a little hitch in my giddyup, though the back brace is long gone.

So introversion plus an early history of people being nasty to me in public, means that I can be pretty guarded when out and about. I’m not usually the person who chats up cashiers and waitstaff. The barista does not know my name. And I have a pretty serious case of resting bitch face.

But you know what? That kind of guardedness is just the shadow version of “here I am.”  In constantly having my guard up, I am making my interactions with strangers all about me. How can I really see anyone else (there you are) when I am so preoccupied with protecting myself?

Considered in context, that long list of public wrongs I could make…it’s just not so long. Say I’ve had fifty awful, scalding interactions with strangers in my lifetime. Say I’ve had a hundred. I could certainly make a list of equal length of encounters with people who have been spectacularly kind. And I have had millions upon millions of interactions in which people have been neutral. So this thing I’m so afraid of that is the reason I’m so guarded….mathematically speaking, it almost never happens.

A couple weeks ago I started wearing a little brass bracelet (Etsy!) that I had stamped with the words there you are. I wear it turned toward me, and those three little words give me three big messages:

See others. It’s a nudge for me stay present enough to really see the people around me; to put aside my guardedness and connect, if I can. Strangers are not obstacles I need to move around as quickly as possible until I can get back to the places I feel safe. They are people with hearts and souls and stories and reasons of their own to feel guarded.

See THOSE others. At the same time, there are people in my life who have proven over and over that they do not have my best interest at heart. We all have these to varying degrees, and we each have our own reasons for continuing to have contact with them. Being fully present means I’m not taken off guard – I remember to watch what they do, not what they say. To stay sane and safe, I must allow myself to see them as the people they have already shown themselves to be, and then act accordingly.

You are seen too. I believe in something greater than myself. Call it what you like; the universe, spirit, God, the quantum field. In any case, I feel like I am not alone. This reminds me that I, too, am seen by this great benevolence, even as I go about my unnoticed work.

On a day when I had just started wearing my reminder bracelet, I went into the coffee shop by my office. The barista said, “How’s your Tuesday?” The smallest of small talk – but the warm authenticity of his tone snapped me right into the present moment. I smiled, made eye contact, and saw him. I saw him on my next visit, and the one after that.

I think he might know my name.

Ordinary Time

 

When you ask children what they want to do when they grow up, nobody says laundry.

 Nobody says I want to pick up mushy dog poop out of a wet backyard.

Nobody says I want to prepare 1,092 meals every year for a family that complains about 847 of them.

When we dream about the things we want to do, we dream about curing sick people, inventing something new, orbiting Mars, making things.  Our dreams of falling in love and starting a family are filled with Pinterest-worthy images of beach trips, school plays and cozy Sunday mornings. We don’t often dream about ordinary time.

In the religion I was raised in, Ordinary Time refers to all the time during the liturgical year that falls outside of the major holiday seasons (Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas). The Sundays of Ordinary Time are numbered, and together they make up the biggest part of the year. And while many of the tenets of the faith are based on the extraordinary things that happen during the holiday seasons, the gospel readings during Ordinary Time are about how the human Jesus lived his everyday life. Before he was the Messiah, he was just a guy who swept up his share of the sawdust in his stepdad’s carpenter shop.

 The rest of us also spend a big part of our lives sweeping up our share of the sawdust. Midlife – when both career and parenting are at peak, and when aging parents need care – is awash in the ordinary. I’m in the thick of all three right now, the trifecta of the mundane, and I am scared there is One Big Thing I am supposed to do and I haven’t figured out what it is and instead I am wasting my ‘one wild and precious life’ on 9 to 5 and dog poop and making sure everyone gets to their doctor appointments.

And given the regularity of midlife divorces, affairs, breakdowns and sports cars, I think I’m probably not the only one who’s scared. I get most scared when I tell myself horror stories about how I have no choice, how these obligations are taking up all of me, burning through my precious time on the planet and leaving nothing for the Important Work (whatever it is) that I am meant to do.

As always, perspective changes everything. When I see my life as a series of soul-killing tasks that I rush through to get to the next series of soul-killing tasks, never quite managing to save enough time for The Important Stuff, then that is exactly what my life becomes. But if I can pause the horror stories about what I think I know, just for a moment, and enter the space of ‘I don’t know,’ my perspective shifts. Right now.

Here are a few of the ‘what if’ questions that take some of the daily-ness out of my day.

What if we need the ordinary? Every life comes with its ration of the mundane. There are certainly people with the power and wealth necessary to outsource most of their ordinary to someone else; and there are those who default on their share of routine tasks to the extent that those around them take it on. But in the main, everyone has to brush their own teeth, put on their own pants – and people who feel themselves superior to the ordinary are not usually a pleasure to be with. There has to be a reason that mindful completion of commonplace tasks is a spiritual practice in many of the world’s major religious traditions. Maybe humans need the grounding, the connection to the world’s heartbeat, that comes with doing a small task with great care.

What if creativity and the ordinary are not mutually exclusive? According to legend, novelist Mario Puzo wrote his first books at his kitchen table – in the midst of his noisy family, his kids’ homework and squabbles, the dinner dishes.  When The Godfather became a smash hit, he used some of the proceeds to build himself a little writer’s cottage…but then found he couldn’t write there, and was soon back at the kitchen table. Some of our most prolific creative minds kept their ‘day jobs’ even after finding success with their art. Maybe the routine, far from dulling our senses, is actually grist for our mill.

What if I could just like this shit? I know – really? Like doing the taxes? The laundry? Cleaning the grout? But as Michael Neill points out in this illuminating post, our preferences are not written in stone, and indiscriminate enjoyment of daily life is our nature. Allowing it back in can make us happier, less stressed, and more productive.

What if we don’t actually know what’s important? I’ve heard parenting compared to the building of a cathedral in medieval Europe – which was such an immense undertaking that the workers who built it would not see it completed in their lifetimes. They glazed windows they would never see light pour through; hewed beams for roofs they would never worship under; stacked one stone on the next and the next, in the total absence of the sense of accomplishment, the closure, we value so highly today. They took it on faith that their work mattered, was part of a larger good.

I love the cathedral as metaphor. (And this is one of my favorite books.) But I’d argue that it’s not just parenting, but life, that is like this. Real knowledge of our impact on the world is rare once we reach adulthood, and we tend to think that the only things we do that matter are the things that get noticed and appreciated. In truth, the world turns on the invisible work of unseen hands. I don’t know who built my house or my car, who picked the beans for the coffee I drank this morning, who made the coat that keeps the rain off me. I will never be able to thank or acknowledge them. All I can do is pay it forward, doing my own share of the invisible work to the best of my ability before releasing it from my hands. I trust it fits in with your work, in a way I will never see or understand.

So give yourself a high-five once you’ve heaved today’s rocks into place. Let’s worry less about what anyone else sees, and more about how we feel while we’re doing it.

Home is where the anxiety is

A dear friend shared an article not long ago about ‘scruffy hospitality;’ the fading art of inviting people into your home as it is, to share whatever you have. No guest towels, no carefully curated dinner table, no well planned menu. Instead – don’t trip over the toys, pull up a chair, we’re having burgers, and help me finish this bottle box of wine.

I love this concept; it speaks to me of warmth, of being deeply welcome, the easy familiarity of neighbors in a time gone by. It’s real connection, as opposed to the arms-length encounter that is being someone’s guest. The funny thing is, it’s exactly the kind of connection we’re looking for (but rarely find) with all of our cleaning and cooking and Pinteresting.

But as attracted as I am to the concept, I struggle with it. I struggle with having anyone in my home, but especially if it’s not as perfect as I can make it.

I have house shame.

Growing up on the knife-edge of poverty, clean took on an outsize importance. It was the difference between broke and poor – between poverty as an economic fact, and poverty as a state of mind; between giving up, and holding out hope things would be better someday. Families with enough money were free to live in tidy houses or not, as they chose. But for the places we called home – rentals with musty green carpeting and dirt ‘yards,’ trailers with drafty floors, furnished in other people’s castoffs – keeping what we had clean was keeping hold of the last shreds of our dignity; an attempt at belonging, and at trying to make a transitory place feel like home. If we didn’t have solidity, ownership, a place we could get attached to, well –a neatly made bed and the scents of Murphy Oil Soap and fresh-brewed coffee would have to do.

Yet it was never quite enough. In public, I thought I was hiding the truth of my family life behind a bright smile and a way with words (I probably wasn’t). But when someone entered our home, there was no hiding our circumstances. No matter how clean the house was, the bald sofa, stained linoleum and icy walls spoke for themselves, and I would be flooded with embarrassment.

I thought this would end as my outward circumstances changed. I thought eventually my home would be ‘nice’ enough that my house shame would go away. It has not. I am a world away from the way I lived my childhood, but every step up and away only brings brief relief. No matter where I’ve moved or what I’ve done to the places I’ve lived, I still feel like my home is so imperfect that the ‘clean’ part has to be just right for me to be acceptable. The common denominator is me.

All it takes for me to be eight years old again is for someone to stop by while the breakfast dishes are still on the counter and the beds are unmade. Or for me to plan to host a gathering (in the absence of a full-on renovation completed just fifteen minutes before everyone arrives – in other words, any time). Or someone to catch sight of those spaces where I have no control. You know, because I live with other people who get to have a say in how they keep their spaces too, rather than living in constant service to my anxiety.

Cultural expectations play a role too. Women are still judged about how they keep their home – no matter how many other people live there and whether or not they pitch in. Homekeeping is a perfectionist freakshow even without the childhood baggage: a moving target with no criteria for what’s good enough, no finish line, and only a vague hope of avoiding shame and judgment as a reward.

Clearly, it’s the shame and anxiety I need to work on, not my house.

Here’s what I know.

It’s not what I do, it’s how I feel when I do it. I like clean and orderly spaces; they’re soothing to my introverted soul. And there’s an obvious difference in how I feel when I tend to my environment for that reason, versus what I do when I’m hustling for approval or trying to avoid shame. My desk at work is freakishly clear, with a decorative lamp, a bamboo plant and (not kidding) a miniature water-feature. Do I do this because I fear my colleagues will judge me if I have a cluttered workspace? Because I will be ashamed if I don’t do these things? No; I do it without thinking, because that’s the environment in which I feel and work the best. (In case you were wondering, though, they totally judge me for the water feature.)

I can look to other women for wisdom. Other women in my life provide the best examples of how I’d like to allow myself and my home to be, and I have two exceptional role models.

My friend A has a family structure similar to mine – she and her spouse work full time and have one tween. She has a lovely home and a talent for striking that balance between the inviting kind of clean, and allowing her home to look like a real live family actually lives there, even when she has people over. She knows of my struggles, and has been known to initiate conversations like this upon leaving my home:

A: Don’t make your bed tomorrow morning.

Me: Why?

A: Because I fucking dare you.

My other role model is my sister in law. Anthony and Sis grew up in a background similar to mine, so she has a ton of empathy and, I think, similar struggles – she just handles them with way more style. She’s sees the state of her house for what it is – the relative condition of a house at one moment in time, not a referendum on her self-worth – and is candid and hilarious on those days when the whole thing goes off the rails. She once told me of meeting her husband’s friend (who dropped by unexpectedly on an off-the-rails day) on the porch with a smile, cold beer, and the announcement that under no circumstances could he enter the house, because it was crazy in there. In one swoop, she kept what was of value – his company – and let the rest go.

I like other people’s imperfect homes. When I am invited into other people’s homes, I am at my most comfortable when they are not perfect. A little pet hair on the furniture and some dishes in the sink are signs that I have been invited in while there is real life going on. I have never, not once in my life, gone into somebody’s house and thought, “Man, they are horrible housekeepers, and that kitchen needs an update.” I bet most other people don’t either; so I’m not even reacting to the actual people entering my home (who are in the main, nice people, because I don’t invite assholes over). I’m reacting to what’s in my head.

One of the great gifts of my time in therapy was the understanding that, when it comes to emotional baggage, it might not be possible to banish it entirely – and that expecting myself to do that is not kind. The kindest thing I can do for myself is to be mindful of how I’m feeling, rather than try and fix it. When the shame and anxiety percentage dials back from 90 to 40, that’s huge progress, even if it never gets to zero.

Tomorrow I’m not making my bed.