Lisa Marie Basile's What's Not Said column explores topics people feel uncomfortable talking about out loud — things that exist in nuance and areas of shame or misunderstanding.
It can really take a toll on you when you have to parent a parent, or manage a parent, especially if they believe they are never wrong, if they bring you on a constant emotional rollercoaster, or if they are co-dependent to the point of suffocation.
Maybe you’ve heard some of these lines:
- Can you pay my phone bill?
- Can you talk? I need someone right now.
- I won’t speak to you unless you do this for me.
- I can’t believe you won’t help me!
- I’m so depressed; I don’t know what to do…
- I’m drinking again….
We all naturally want to help our parents. I might argue that to a large extent, we should help our parents — after all, they gave us this magnificent little thing called existence. But there is a line between supporting your parents and supporting your parents — and for each of us, that line is going to be different, depending on everything from family history to culture to socioeconomic issues to health crises.
Just because I’m an adult doesn’t mean I have an unconditional, endless ability to hold others up. Sadly, that includes my parents.
A parent who moves in with their adult kid because they are undergoing cancer treatment is different from the parent who uses their child as a crutch during hard times, consistently applying pressure and need and want. A child can’t be the parent’s only therapist and friend, just like we can’t make our lovers or best friends assume that role. One person can’t hold up the weight of another at all times. It’s especially difficult in situations of role reversal, like with parents and kids.
For some, this give and take may be natural and expected. For others, this wasn’t something they bargained for and not something they can do. And in some cases, it might be a little of both.
So, I can’t say what sort of situation is too much for you. But I can say that many of us have been there. I’ve had friends tell me their parents guilt them when they don’t behave exactly how they need them to, or if they don’t do the things they need them to do. I’ve had friends say their parents call them at all hours of the night because they’re lonely or depressed or drunk — not respecting their child’s boundaries, emotionally and tangibly. I’ve had friends tell me that their parents are draining their bank accounts. (Again, not all situations can be lumped into the same category — but you know if you’re dealing with one).
And for all these people, there’s one thing in common: they’re tired. They’re hopeless. And they want to help their parents help themselves.
It’s so important to have empathy, compassion, and a willingness to support your loved ones. Not everyone is as resilient as another, so no doubt there will be times when someone just needs to be seen, heard, and loved. Even when that someone is a person who traditionally should be comforting you. We are all human, after all.
However, there is a boundary that is important to be aware of — especially between children and parents. When the parent requires more from the child than the child is prepared to give — especially when that parent has often fucked off their own parental duties, or lacks self-awareness, or who won’t get help on their own — it can be challenging to have endless compassion and care.
In my own life, I’ve dealt with these sorts of parental issues — where I’m the savior, emotionally and financially. It’s awkward, difficult, and retraumatizing, usually because my parent doesn’t realize that their need to be nurtured is related to the very thing that causes me my own emotional issues. Just because I’m an adult doesn’t mean I have an unconditional, endless ability to hold others up. Sadly, that includes my parents.
That’s where compassion fatigue comes in.
The term is pretty self-explanatory, but there is some comfort in realizing it is something a lot of people experience. When you feel oversaturated with someone else’s feelings and trauma, and when that causes you your own feelings of detachment, disassociation, anxiety, or depression, that’s when you know it has set in. And trying to figure out if you’re just being a selfish asshole or not — on top of it all — is the tricky part. (Hint: if you’re asking yourself if you’re an asshole, you likely aren’t an asshole).
In my attempts to try and deal with my own situation, I’ve done some research — and here’s what I’ve learned. Obviously, there’s no one-size fits all fix — and each family is going to react in their own way.
Get therapy or suggest that your parent get therapy.
According to this piece, My Mother Wants Me To Be Her Mother at Psychology Today, getting therapy can help you figure out ways to get some space and approach the situation. Therapy might not be an option for you, though, so I’ve found some forums that could potentially be helpful. In my experience, finding community, reading about how other people handle this situation, and simply knowing that you are not alone, lifts some of the burden.
Get your parent into volunteer work.
Sometimes when your parent feels out of control, or emotionally or financially needy, a volunteer position could give them the sense that they, in fact, are a caregiver. This could have a great impact on how they view themselves. I have seen this first-hand; one day a month a family member of mine goes to a pet shelter. It gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of control over their life, and it gets them out of their head. Even that one day has made a difference.
Set clear limits.
You can’t answer your phone all day or constantly answer for your choices, beliefs, ideas, or lifestyle. At some point, you may just have to draw a line in the sand and stay there — and after a lifetime of being flexible and trying to be diplomatic, no matter how wonderful your parent is, you may just need to say “this is a line you cannot cross.” It sounds impossible, and it may feel really sad upon execution. But here’s the kicker: Anyone who wants to help another person can only do so if they are strong themselves. In the end, it can benefit the both of you. I find this hard to do on my end — but there are some nights when I just can’t answer the phone. In your heart, you know the difference between being selfish and when you need to make some space for self-care and re-energizing.
Have a hard conversation.
I’ve had to say, “It’s not fair that you put me in this position time and again. I know that you don’t mean it, but this is how it makes me feel. I can help you in this way, this way, and this way, and here are the ways I don’t think I can.” It wasn’t a perfect script, but it helped me. How? I wrote out what was hurting me, and what I was happy to help my parent with. I know, in my situation, the inherent difference between normal support and support to the point of my own exhaustion. Making a list of the above items, saying it clearly and concisely, and acting with compassion, love, and kindness, helped. I hope it helps you too.