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What Children Owe Parents

Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.
Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.

I’ve lived with my elderly, widowed mother, 89, all of my 48 years. She depends on me for cooking, cleaning, shopping, and personal care. I now have an opportunity to have my own place, but my mother insists she needs me to take care of her. She is mobile and financially secure but lacks the confidence to run errands and gets anxious when she doesn’t get her way. My three siblings are married with families and do not live nearby. I fear that, if I move out, she’ll have a nervous breakdown and die, and I’ll be left with overwhelming guilt. I have chronic fatigue. Please help me decide what to do.

Your dilemma goes to the heart of two age-old questions: What do parents owe their children, and what do children owe their elderly parents? Both warrant scrutiny because your history suggests serious derelictions on each side are feeding your predicament.

Children do owe something to aging parents. But why is the burden not shared among your siblings? It’s bad enough that your mother created the circumstances, but why do your siblings endorse and perpetuate the situation? There are many ways they can share in her care from a distance.

Whether you assumed your sense of responsibility or it was assigned to you (dysfunctional families have ways of doing that), you alone have become a prisoner of your mother’s emotional neediness. The outsize sense of guilt you feel for even contemplating an independent life may lead you to imagine overly dire consequences for your mom if you do something for yourself—no matter how overdue. You owe your parent care, but not your life.

Having sacrificed your own needs to another’s demands suggests that you could benefit from learning how to speak up for yourself. The skill will serve you well as you move forward.

Much as grown children owe parents something, parents owe their children, too—preparing them to lead their own life, develop their own talents and skills, and pursue their own path to happiness. Your mother has placed her own emotional needs well above yours, exploiting your inability to assert yourself—rather than seeking ways to remedy it.

However much your mother may be overplaying her emotional fragility to keep you doing her bidding, you have encouraged her dependence by not speaking up about the burden on you. It is never too late for enlightenment. The necessary course is to establish new arrangements for parental care shared by four siblings. That will take numerous conversations and will test your assertiveness skills, but so will the life you plan to lead, the one to which you are as entitled as your sibs.

Then another note arrived: “My mother had a fall on Friday and may not recover. Perhaps now I can get a job and live a normal life.”