More Than Caregiving

The new truth about life with aging parents

Sexuality and Sex, And Caregiving

Insidious lessons about sexuality growing up can define a caregiver later on.

Love and Sex and Growing Up. This was the title of a popular book when I was a kid.  But what do love and sex mean once someone has grown? Once someone has become a caregiver? And what did that caregiver learn about love and sex and growing up by watching the model her own now elderly parents provided? This is the topic Cris Mazza addresses in the following essay.

Cris Mazza’s newest title is a real-time memoir titled Something Wrong With Her.  She has sixteen other titles including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?   Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction.  Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, most recently Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience.  In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored an earlier collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian.  Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She can be found online at www.cris-mazza.com

By Cris Mazza

It was time for in-home assistance. Our 94-year-old father could not go on cooking and cleaning dishes, doing laundry, and overseeing medicines for our 89-year-old mother who had stopped managing any of these, little by little, over the past six months. 

Three of us had been brought together from various distant locations to our childhood home for this task. Stymied by aphasia – difficulty processing language, both comprehending what is said to her as well as locating the right words and grammar to express what she is thinking – our mother didn’t fully understand what the in-home care professionals seated on her living room sofa were saying, but our mother’s expressions showed doubt, apprehension, and sorrow. There seemed no effective way to help her accept how she would benefit from this. But this worked, as well as anything was going to:  

“Mom, this is for Dad. He needs help. He can’t do everything. We have to help him.”

“Yes. True. He does too much. Too much for him.”

 

There are gendered nuances in the roles we learn from our mothers. My mother, besides having been a physical education coach and then elementary teacher, was a wife and mother of five, starting in the early 50s: ostensibly a familial caregiver finding satisfaction only (or mostly) in what she can do (or what she can sacrifice) to assist, assuage or fulfill another. Caregiving roles vary – household, as family caretaker, and, also rarely discussed, sexual. As her daughter, I learned from my mother. I cannot trace, prove or even claim a cause-and-effect, but I became a sexual caregiver.

You don’t ask a man to do what will please you. He’s supposed to know and give it to you. Or he doesn’t. Or won’t. (Know. Or give it to you.) But regardless, you can be happy and complete anticipating what he wants and giving him what he needs.

An outdated piece of subliminal (or concrete) marriage advice?  No.  My sex life. My own recommendation to myself.

Giving a man what he needed for his sexual ego, and being desired by a man (or chosen) to fulfill those needs … that was my ego.  There was no self-esteem attached to whether or not I was satisfied, (whatever that meant).  

Women writing frankly about their sexual experiences had broken open before I lost my virginity. Mostly they were “confessing” their hunger, their desires, their means of satisfying themselves. No writer that I came across expressed disillusionment, lack of sensation, minimal arousal, or pain. Those were my experiences. If I wrote about those, I didn’t do it with the kind of frank, confessional first-person character stand-in that had caught the literary world’s attention in Fear of Flying.  My first novel-character was the invention of a loner artist (himself an invention by the author), a fantasy girlfriend who did not have orgasms (but at least did not feel pain) because he “couldn’t imagine what that would be like for her.” The man’s imagination dictated the woman’s experience. I did not immediately realize the full implication of what I had done with that trope.

Men (the plural word seems too populated; the number was under five) confessed, both knowingly and subliminally, their insecurities and fantasies to me. I did my best to fulfill them. I was rewarded with gratitude. Their astonished and satiated eyes. A few of them held my hand or strapped an arm around me on the sofa while watching a movie.

It was not until the next wave of women’s confessional writing about sex, starting in the late 90s, that I turned my gaze from literary representations to my secret self: the one who felt little except friction (or pain), who did not know what sexual hunger might be like, who was still (although much less often) performing sexual needs for a man with no reciprocation, no inquiry (or request) by either of us regarding what I might like. Perhaps neither of us could imagine it.

But I was suddenly aware of the void in my life as it compared to the ecstasies being delivered in younger women’s fiction and (by then) memoirs.  I wondered why. There was something wrong with me.  I began to feel mourning for the missing part of my life. But this was grief to be ashamed of, because to me its (possible) resolution is not an entitlement.

 

Back at my parents’ house, five of us (counting various spouses) were using our childhood bathroom, two in sleeping bags on the floor, my father back in the full-sized (not queen or king) bed he’d shared with our mother for over 50 years, but where now her restless sleep and nocturnal rips to the bathroom keep him awake.

She gets up to sit with her iPad and play solitaire and gin rummy. Until she falls sideways, asleep again. Our father trying to distract his unease by bending over the always-present jigsaw puzzle spread on his former bridge table.  Meanwhile, over a marinara sauce she was preparing for our parents’ supper, my sister wept quietly because she couldn’t alleviate her husband’s travel frustrations while we grappled with the home-care company interviews, visits from nurses and physical therapists, plus our parents’ anxieties.

My other sister sat with our mother on the loveseat, backlit by a picture window.  Mom, now awake, leaning close. “Mom, are you ever sad?”

Mom turns away to look out the window.

“A lot.”

My sister thinks for a moment, then says, “What would make you happier?”

Not much of a pause this time, but our mother does need to work to turn her perspective into language. “Sell this house. Move to a place with help. Nearer you. But Dad is happy here.”

Yet the only time I saw her smile on this visit was as she lay in her bed and my father bent over her to kiss her goodnight.

Meredith Resnick, L.C.S.W., is a health writer and licensed social worker. She is also the mother of two adopted daughters.

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