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I opened my front door Thanksgiving morning and called “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.”

My 14-year-old cat, FatBoy had been missing 18 hours. I was up late in the night looking for him. He never went far, hanging around our shady front porch, but most eating (thus his name) and sleeping in various windows, beds, and closet corners throughout the house. No answer. No meow. I was in full worry mode. I’m no stranger to death. I know that losing  a pet isn’t like losing a parent or spouse, or child but nothing in me wanted to go through this again. Not today. Not Thanksgiving.

My husband and I took our bikes and began to ride around the neighborhood calling him.

And then I saw him.

My husband threw down his bike and got to FatBoy before I did. His hands went to his heart. He ran half way to me, turned and back to FatBoy, then back to me–not knowing what to do.

And then he held his arms open and I folded into his chest and cried.

We’ve been through so much together. He held me when my adoptive Daddy died, the big teddy-bear hero who gave me a home and made the world right again. I held him when his brother-in-law died in a head-on car crash. Bill swerved the car and spared the life of his wife and daughter. My husband identified the body. I held him at four in the morning when he returned from the morgue and collapsed in my arms. He held me when my mother died after years of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, when exhaustion gave way to release gave way to void. He sat beside me on a sailboat as we helped to scatter a dear friend’s ashes into the sea, feeling our own mortality. We’ve stood side-by-side as we witnessed the death of friends, family, and yes, our beloved pets and remembered their lives in that bitter-sweet time of letting go. I can barely grasp what it would be like to lose him. I can’t even let myself glimpse into that sorrow.

Who would hold me?  Who would I hold?

I’ve learned a thing or two about death. I’ve learned to not stop the pain, the tears. I’ve learned to accept the love, the support.

I stayed with FatBoy while Phillip went back and got a blanket. He was in a garden behind a small white picket fence. I call this particular neighbor’s house the Thomas Kincaid house. His paintings are warm cottages with trees and shade, and dappled sunlight. It was quiet, a little cool. I could sit with him. Be with him. I wasn’t afraid or nervous. It was just him and me.

My husband dug a hole in the backyard and we decided to bury FatBoy under my Buddha statue. I bought the laughing buddha for my birthday last May–did I somehow know? I laid my sweet, chubby, always there for me kitty into the earth and sprinkled the first handful of cool, moist dirt on top. I wanted to do this.I was fully alert and present. It wasn’t like Daddy’s funeral. I was 23, so young, so scared. I turned away when they lowered him into the ground. Today, I don’t need to turn away.

It felt right–for him to die in a garden and be buried in a garden. In the spring he’ll be surrounded by cannas and irises and calla lillies. There’s a windchime in a Live Oak nearby.

Our youngest daughter joined us. She hugged me–full body. We held  on to each other, neither of us in a hurry to let go. Our middle daughter arrived for the day’s festivities. She’s the director of a massage therapy school and could charge for her hugs, they’re so good.  I felt my muscles give way, and then her husband–a former wrestler with a wide chest and strong biceps curl around the two of us. My friend, Laura arrived and ran to me. She has four cats, and we cried and cried.

I’m tired of holding it all in. Tired of trying to be strong. Tired of keeping it all together. Each person, their arms, shoulders, necks and kisses comforted me. I allowed each of them to minister to me, feed me, be my strength.

We all pulled the meal together, sat down at the table and took hands. And I realized that it was good day for a death–I was surrounded by people I loved and who loved me.

The love that surrounds a death is healing. It’s comes in time. You’re ready when you’re ready, when life has brought you here. It will come.

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Caregivers are often told to take care of themselves, and sometimes this advice is a little annoying.

Exactly how am I supposed to take care of me? Not give my mom her pills in the morning? Go to the gym instead?  Not take her to physical therapy? Not help my kids with their homework or fix dinner? Just soak in the bathtub all day? Right…

Yes, the stress builds and you can’t sleep, you’ve gained 40 pounds and you’re pretty sure you’re depressed but you don’t care to go to the trouble it would take to find out. Self care sounds like a fairy tale most days, but don’t think that the self-help movement is some new-age 70s feel good way of thinking. It’s not. In fact, it’s as old as Socrates…

One of my favorite books is Eye Witness to History, edited by John Carey. It’s first hand accounts recorded throughout history, and as a memoirist and writer, I love having a front row seat to the most stunning and scary historical moments man has ever witnessed.

The first account is written by Plato and recounts the death of Socrates. The year was 399 B.C., and for those of you (us) who might be a bit fuzzy about Greek history, Socrates was a philosopher and teacher, (and he’s still widely debated today–both as an individual and for his teachings). He got in a bit of trouble with the Atenian government and was considered a “gadfly”  (a fly who stings the horse into action). He wound up in prison and was proved guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens (political minds, that is) and was  ordered to drink a deadly mix of hemlock poison, which killed him.

On the last day of Socrates life, his friends, including Plato came to visit him and asked,  “Do you wish to leave any directions with us about your children, or anything else. What can we do to serve you?” 

Socrates replied: “Nothing new. If you take care of yourselves , you will serve me and mine and yourselves.” 

So this idea of caring for yourself first is the best way to care for another isn’t new. It just makes sense and that’s why it’s been around for so long. When we “sacrifice” ourselves for too long, we lose ourselves, we deplete who we are. Sometimes it’s needed–giving all you have–but it isn’t a sustainable long-term model.

During the last couple of years of my mom’s life (she had Parkinson’s, heart disease and Alzheimer’s), I can tell you, there wasn’t a whole lot of self-care going on. I had to pull it out–long hours, lifting my mom, hospital stay after hospital stay. I rested when I could–napped in the middle of the day–or any other time for that matter, took long showers. when my family members could take over “mom duty.”

I simplified my life–letting go of work, friends, saying goodbye to many activities–but I held onto a few lifelines. I journaled every day. Not a lot, but when the tears or screams built inside, I’d anchor them onto a page. I slipped  outside to pray and think, allowing nature to nurture me. I returned to take a college class one night a week–up until the last six months of my mom’s life. I got a new puppy to bring us all joy and laughter and remind us that life does indeed go on. Other aspects of my life were put on hold. That’s just part of it–for a season.

Self-care isn’t always a bubble bath and candles. It isn’t impractical nor is it selfish. The only way for a caregiver to do it is to incorporate small amounts of self-care throughout the day. Read a line or two of a poem. Buy your favorite coffee and refuse to get up off that couch and take care of anyone until you drink that first cup. Put a lock on your bedroom door and use it. Take short five-minute walks in your yard. That may be all the self-care you get to, but those few snatched moments here and there add up.  You’ll find a sense of calm comes over you when you’ve honored your own soul.

Take care of you and yours and you will serve me well. Good advice. No wonder Socrates is still remembered today.

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Thanksgiving is the time of year we gather those we love under one roof. Pass the stuffing, hold the sarcastic remarks. If you’ve ever had your mother, your teenagers, and your toddlers all at one table, you know it can get dicey. No iPods at the table, yes you have to eat two bites of broccoli, and thank you, mother–I have gained a few pounds lately–glad you noticed and thought it worth commenting on!  Multigenerational households are petri dishes for family issues. The best way to combat the exhaustion and stress is with a splash of humor.

Your mother might not “get” the challenges of raising a teenager in today’s world of texting and Youtube. She might have a comment or two about your toddler pitching a fit at Target and even state emphatically that you and your siblings never acted out in public (although you distinctly remember a few incidents). You can either laugh it off and not let it get to you, or…take it personal. It’s best to act like a duck and let the water roll off your feathers.

Change the subject or stand your ground, whichever the situation calls for. Remind yourself that you’re a “good enough” parent. You know how to prioritize and you give your heart and time to those you love. That’s good enough.

The only person who can give you that inner resolve to choose to not let your kids or your mom get to you–is you. For me, it took some alone time first thing in the morning and then a few times during the day. I’d sit in the car and give myself a pep talk. I’d walk back to my room to get something, look at myself in the mirror and give myself a smile. When one of those arrows struck me good and hard, I’d go cry, yell, or punch my pillow a couple of times. What was worse was when I didn’t take the high road and I was the one having to go and apologize. It comes with having too much to do and letting the pressure get to you.

Being mom to two generations–one on each side–is exhausting, frustrating, and at times you question yourself. It’s also rewarding. There’s something pretty cool about being the axis at the center of the wheel. Even though I got my fair share of scowls since I was caregiving and raising kids, (my mother had Alzheimer’s) at the same time. It felt like I was the bad guy all the time. I remember one day when I was arguing with my mom (who also had Parkinson’s) that she couldn’t drive in busy traffic, and then turning right around and giving my 15 year-old a driving lesson. We had plenty of tiffs, laughs and hugs, and that’s family life.  

So if you’re sitting down at Thanksgiving tomorrow, say a out loud thanks for being a multi-gen house. Grab hands, say a blessing, and pass the rolls. Your life may be really full and crazy right now, but you know,  that really is a good thing.

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It’s not what you think. Caregivers don’t dread the work, giving up aspects of their lives, or even the inevitable moment of death that’s to come.

I recently spoke at a caregiving event (sponsored by my friends at Community Hospice of North Florida) and I asked caregivers what they feared…and a quiet, thoughtful gentleman shared:

“I fear that something will happen to me and I won’t be able to continue to care for my wife.”

That’s one of the biggest fears–that our loved ones won’t be cared for.

I’m sure it’s different for each person, but there are a few fears that most caregivers have in common.

What’s your biggest caregiving fear?

By asking yourself this question, you can then face it and then begin to explore solutions.

I knew the second this gentleman said it, that it’s a big fear, especially for those caring for spouses. 

And yet, most caregivers don’t take proper care of themselves. They put off their own doctor appointments, forget their own medications, and go dangerously  low on sleep and rest. Most caregivers are generous, kind-hearted, and conscientious–with others, but forget to give themselves the same respect and attention.

Spouses worry about their ability to care for their husband or wife more than any other group. They’re typically close to the same age, which means they probably have health issues of their own. They want to keep their partner at home, with them, and make sure that every need, every inkling of a desire is met–but they can’t if they’re not here.

Adult children, sons, daughters, and other family caregivers fear burning out, giving up, or the onset of some disability/illness that will cause them to be unable to stand up to the unrelenting workload and emotional load that comes with caring for others.

Caregiver stress is a real problem in the care community and that concern takes on a physical manifestation in the form of heart disease, cancer, depression, or arthritis.

Caregiver Fears:

  • What if I die before my loved one? Who will care for them?
  • What if my back goes out?
  • What if I have a stroke or my cancer comes back?
  • What if I can no longer lift or move my loved one?
  • What if I lose my temperand do something I’ll regret? 
  • What if my depression gets worse?  
  •  What if I start forgetting important things like medication or if I left the stove on? 

The bad thing about fear is that it’s paralyzing.

We don’t run or yell or scream like we should (Ever watch a horror movie? The girl just cowers in fear). That’s our first reaction, but then we need to realize we’re in the grips of fear and make a plan–face the fear and decide our course of action.

My gentleman was still reeling from admitting his deepest fear, so it was important to give him the time and space to process his revelation. I asked him, and other audience members if they had a plan–a back up plan, and then I led him to some community resources who could help him figure out what would be “Plan B.”

Ask yourself: What can I do to give myself a sense of peace that my loved one will continue to be cared for?

Do you need to change your will? Ask someone to be his/her guardian and care advocate? Check into care facilities or purchase long-term care insurance? There are no easy answers, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Start small. Make a call. Ask someone.

My gentleman friend needed to know he had choices–agencies such as the Council on Aging, Urban Jax (in our area) and the Alzheimer’s Association who could help now, offer respite, home health care assitance–and later, he needed to consider small care home, memory disorder care home nearby (his wife had Alzeimer’s), information on Medicare.

By the end of the day, he said he felt better. He needed to face it, to say it out loud. He went home with the beginnings of a plan.

We tend to fear the unknown, and in the “caregiving world,” there are lots of unknowns. We turn our fears into monsters and we hide, deny, and ignore in order not to look at them. Their shadows loom above us, but when we turn on the light, admit our deepest fears and take a look around, we realize  we’re not alone.

The best way to defeat a monster is with the help of a few friends.

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In the U.S. today, more people are addicted to prescription meds than those who abuse heroin, meth, and cocaine–combined. It usually starts as a result of surgery, an accident, or a chronic pain condition that has become unbearable over time. The sad part is that it turns good people into mush. They lose their closest relationships, their homes, their children, their livelihood–all for a pill. For many, it’s also a part of their caregiving journey.

As a caregiver, it’s easy to fall into this trap. After all, you’re home all day–many times isolated–and you have access to lots of medications. You might be a tad depressed, your back hurts, you’re exhausted–and if you could just sleep, just not be in pain for a few hours…

Or your loved one finds themselves reaching too many times a day for something to alleviate the pain and loneliness, –maybe it’s your spouse or parent or child who is struggling with a prescription med addiction. It might start in college–the new craze is to take Ritalin or other drugs to help you study harder and longer and be extra alert during tests. It might be with a spouse who had back surgery and the pills “helped,” but now they have a hard time letting them go.

Oprah and Dr. Ozdid a special on this topic, and the people they interviewed were heartbreaking examples of how common this problem really is–people you wouldn’t expect. “Whether it’s Xanax, Vicodin, Valium or Percocet, Dr. Oz says more than 50 million Americans have admitted to trying prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons.”
 

Women, young women with children, older people, teens–all walks of life face this problem. As we well know, Betty Ford, President Gerald Ford’s wife struggled with this very problem and then opened the Betty Ford Clinic to help others battle addictions.

I watched this happen to an acquaintance. She was a young mother with three boys and a husband who traveled for his work. Rumors and concerns swarmed around her, and friends tried to intervene. She finally hit bottom and had to have a liver transplant. If anyone knows about organ transplants, then they know that it plunges you into a world of doctors, medicine, and a life-time of pills. I heard that sadly, she passed away about 5 years after her liver transplant. She had gone bad to abusing prescription drugs. Her boys no longer have their mother. Hers is ultimate warning: addictions can become so big and so consuming that it can literally consume your life.

Is Prescription Drug Abuse Common Among the Elderly? Yes.

According to DrugAbuse.gov, “Persons 65 years of age and above comprise only 13 percent of the population, yet account for approximately one-third of all medications prescribed in the United States. Older patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term and multiple prescriptions, which could lead to unintentional misuse.

How to Prevent or Cope With Prescription Meds Addiction:

  • Before you start to have a problem: get rid of the pain pills. If your surgery is long past, don’t leave them in your medicine cabinet. Toss them. Even if you think you would never be tempted, remove the temptation–for you and your family members.
  • Be a vigilant counter. Make sure you know how many pills your loved one needs, and be sure they stick to it. If you only have one prescription of pain pills and you count them out, then it’s easy to keep track and know if pills are missing.
  • If you’re not the only one picking up prescriptions, then be aware that many people who are addicted use multiple doctors and multiple pharmacies. Check the bottles, check the dates, check the doctors.
  • If you suspect a problem, then start paying attention. Check their purses, backpacks, bathroom cabinets, cars, and other hiding places. This is serious, you need to know what’s going on.
  • If you find a problem, start attending Al-Anon. As the support person, you need support and education. You need to create a game plan, and you need to know you’re not alone.
  • Know that this won’t’ be easy, especially if your loved one has a condition that really does include pain. Be willing to give them “tough love.” This could cost them their life, and I’d rather my spouse, child, or parent hate me than for them to die.
  • If your loved one is old-er, they may be obstinate (that of course, can come at any age) and they may refuse to attend Nar-Anon meetings (for those who abuse narcotics) but visit their website, become educated, and don’t give up.
  • Notify their doctors that prescription drugs are a problem, but realize that if they’re truly addicted, you may see agitated, even violent behavior as well as shakes, nausea, sleeplessness, and all kinds of antics.
  • Look at your own behavior: how have you contributed to this situation? Be honest with yourself. Don’t look at it as blame, treat yourself with the same compassion as you would your best friend. You were tired, you looked the other way, you made excuses, you needed to keep the peace. You can’t move forward until you admit there’s a problem, and that you’re somehow a part of this whole picture–but know that you’re also a part of the solution. Until you acknowledge the situation, it doesn’t have a chance to change.

You can’t control or “fix” anybody else. You’re only 100% responsible for you. Caregiving comes with many challenges, and the abuse of prescription drugs is a huge problem we have to start talking about. Don’t isolate yourself, make excuses, or feel you’re all alone. You’re not. There are others who have struggled with addictions, with being a family member of those addicted, and their insights and their example can help.

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“You want to see my new girlfriend?” My friend’s husband teased his wife one day as I was visiting her in the hospital. He is her caregiver, her husband, her lover, her muse and mentor  of 40 years, and her illness had put a real strain on their relationship. 

He pulls out his wallet, takes out a picture and shows it to her. I can tell it’s a joke because he’s grinning from ear-to-ear. She breaks out in laughter despite her pain. They show me the picture.

It was a picture he had taken of his hand!

My friend was in the hospital–that time for close to three weeks. She has a chronic disease that has attacked her intestines. Her husband had sold his business and they had rearranged their life to accommodate this hostile addition to their family–illness.

Both of them had visions of their golden years–traveling in their RV, grandchildren, financial security, and lots and lots of leisure and fun. Hospitals, drugs, and pain was not what either had in mind.

To say that their sex life diminished is an understatement.

To say that sex doesn’t matter in the face of disease and pain is to not look at the whole situation. Sex does matter. It’s the one thing couples do together that they don’t “do” with anyone else. It’s a glue, a bond, a secret language, a healer of life’s wounds…to simply and biologically state it, sex is a needed release.

More magazine has an interesting article in September 09′s issue on this very subject. They state that 75% of all marriages that are dealing with chronic illness long-term end in divorce.

These aren’t shallow people. This isn’t Jon and Kate splashing their news on the headlines (not that they’re shallow, marriage is tough and I hurt for them and their children). These are quiet, hard working, family oriented people who  face surmounting, mind-boggling stress, heartbreak, financial ruin, unbelievable and unrelenting pain. And the one thing that can combat all this–their marriage and the healing powers of sex and intimacy–are taken from them.

How do couples get through caregiving and the strains it places on their marriage?

I observed my couple friends and this is what I’ve gathered.

You readjust.

You let go of what you thought life would be.

You dig deep to find your integrity.

 You find joy in the smallest of things. You find purpose as a caregiver.

You use your anger not at each other like weapons of mass destruction, but together, to get things done, to let off steam, to keep from going crazy…and you turn that anger into humor–maybe a little sick and twisted–but it keeps it from turning toxic inside you.

You do what you have to do to get by–and it’s nobody’s business. How you define sex may be different than other couples, and how and when you’re intimate may not fit the national average.

You get strong and tough and tender and real all at the same time.

I have no big answers here. It’s too complex and too gritty to give you bullet points–as if you could fire them on target and make it all instantly go away. What I have gathered from my friends and others I’ve seen going through years of what illness can do to a relationship is that the ones that make it create this circle of energy around themselves. They are one.

Couples who face caregiving challenges together have come through the fire, and on the surface, no, life didn’t turn out like they thought it would–but in many ways, it’s better. I witnessed it in my parent’s marriage.  The unity, the simplicity, the bond they have, they earned. You can see it in their eyes, they familiar gestures of thoughtfulness, the resolve in their voice. They have something profound.

~Carol O’Dell

Author, Mothering Mother

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Have you ever told someone you collect elephant figurines–and then everyone gives you elephants for your birthday, Christmas and just for the heck of it? Suddenly, you’re crawling with elephants. Pink elephants, purple  elephants , glass elephants. You’re now the owner of elephant dishes and elephant t-shirts. That’s what it feels like as a caregiver sometimes. Once you take on that role, it can take over your life.

When I was caregiving my mom, I went through a stage when it was all I could talk about. Caregiving consumed my every thought. I was in constant search of how to relieve my frustration, how to get the help my mom needed, and I embraced this new identity because well, it took up most of my thoughts, time and energy. But then it builds and builds like those darn elephants start cluttering up the place and suddenly, you’re sick of it.

Maybe that’s where you’re at. Maybe you’ve recently become a caregiver, or you’ve been at it for years and years. You bought some books on Alzheimer’s. You go to caregiver meetings. You go online to caregiving forums and chat-rooms. The few friends you have left talk to you about their moms and dads, spouses and all things caregiving. They call you whenever it’s mentioned on television or there’s an article about it in a magazine. You’re inundated. Elephants, elephants, everywhere.

You can’t for the life of you remember life before…your life feels like one of those old-fashioned movies when they used to smear the lens with Vaseline. Fuzzy. You used to…run an ad firm, be an accountant, a pre-school teacher, take ballet, go to France…now you’re excited if you get to go Costco! How did this happen?

Break Out of the Caregiving Rut:

  • Have at least one friend who isn’t actively caregiving. Everyone needs a little variety.  
  • Forbid yourself to talk about caregiving for one hour (wear a rubber-band and snap yourself if you do!)
  • Do at least one non-care related activity a day–even for ten minutes. Knit. Plant a container garden. Take a PhotoShop class online.
  • Get the paper. Read the paper–or a magazine . Shoot for one a week. Expand your mind. Fill your head with something that interests you (other than caregiving).
  • Give yourself venting sessions. Yeah, the pressure builds. Get a timer and set it for 10 minutes. Call a good buddy and let it rip. When the timer goes off, STOP!
  • Ask yourself: is this a toxic relationship? Some folks are just negative, and right now, you’ve got enough going on. Surround yourself with upbeat people. If someone brings out the worst in your, back off the relationship.
  • Back off the caregiving info. Yeah, I know I blog about caregiving but take a break now and then. Go to Jokes.com or some other fun site. I promise you, no new caregiving breakthroughs that are going to revolutionize your life is going to happen today…probably not tomorrow.
  • Observe yourself. Are you over-identifying with your loved one? I know how much you love them, how much you worry…but too much attention isn’t good for anybody. Step back and listen to yourself.
  • Fill your head with…CD’s. I’m an audio book nut. I love to lose myself in someone else’s world. You can get CD’s from the library or from several online sources–one I know of is about $14 a month for unlimited CD’s–like Netflix, you just send them back in the mail and get a new one.
  • Schedule that respite care. I know it freaks you out. They’ll mess up your schedule, not give the meds right, you’ll fret so much it won’t be worth it. You need a break. You need a few days NOT doing this so you can come back renewed. Plan a couple of months ahead. Do a run-through. Have this person (professional or family/friend) come over for a few hours and see how it goes.
  • Break the vicious cycle by doing the opposite. If you’re talking too much, go on a verbal or media fast–turn off the computer and the television and go outside–listen for a change–to the birds, to the frogs at sunset.
  • If you’re going all the time–give yourself a 3 day moratorium. Stay home for 3 straight days. Get the milk and the bread ahead of time and stay put. I promise you, you’ll feel more centered and that chaotic fear will begin to subside.

I know how important caregiving is–I did it–and I gave it my all. But I hope you’ll be your own best friend and always learn and grow–and get back in balance when you get off a bit. 

Yes, caregiving can wear you down–and talking about it all the time can really wear you out–and it doesn’t make you a better caregiver. What do you bring to your relationship? Sometimes we have to discipline our words and our thoughts–and like exercise, it feels so good to hurt a little!

Why can talking about caregiving hurt you? Because we create energy around anything we talk about or think about. No that’s not woo-woo crazy talk, it’s true. Too much thinking about anything wears you out. When you’ve crossed the line, you know because it tires you out, it doesn’t relieve your stress. That’s how you know you have to curtail it a bit. A country preacher I heard one time said, “Maybe it’s time to change your stinkin’ thinkin’…” Well put.

So chuck a few elephants and enjoy the empty space.

~Carol O’Dell

Author, Mothering Mother

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Don’t know if you happened to read the article on parents and marriage in June 2009′s Redbook magazine.If not, check it out–yours truly (moi) and my hubby are one of the couples that were interviewed. (Giada DeLaurentis is on the cover, but it will soon be replaced with July’s issue so hurry if you want to check it out).

The question was, “How did your parent’s marriage effect yours?”

I have two parental marriages to consider–and both had an impact on me for very different reasons. My birth parent’s marriage impacted my life because well, it fell apart and I had to be adopted. It’s a big deal when a family fails to the point of the child needing to be adopted. That means neither parent could parent the child–and neither could any of the rest of the family.

My birth mother was schizophrenic and my birth father was an addict–he was addicted to alcohol, gambling, and my mother’s trust fund. Their inability to parent me altered the course of my life.

I’m at peace with that now–after many years of not being. It’s tough to have to figure all that out–to get over the hurt, betrayal, rejection. To wonder why you weren’t wanted. I spent many years literally in a soul-knot and through much love, support, counseling, journaling, self-help and literally wearing the thing out, I came to a deep sense of trust that I am and have been exactly where I need to be–then and now.

My adoptive family was…a lot of things. I was adored. My parents were in their 50s when they adopted me. They were deeply, deeply religious and with that comes a zealousness that is both alluring and a little dangerous. I was raised old-school Southern, fundamentalist, and on top of that, my mother was a minister in the denomination and (I’ll try to put this delicately), if she got mad, she could make living inside the walls of a tornado seem like a safe place to be.

But one thing I do know. My adoptive parents loved each other. They were quite different–he was quiet, contemplative, loyal and wise. She was vivacious, unpredictable, funny, and could suck the air out of a room with her presence.

I enjoyed their banter, their ability to be such strong individuals, their affection and tenderness toward each other–and how much they respected each other. Each were like strong pillars that flanked my life. A more sensitive, less smart-mouthed, spunky child might not have been able to stand it, but I’m now ironically grateful for all that has happened to me (mostly, maybe not all).

So when it came down to caregiving, I could say I had no choice. I could say I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I could say it was easy, but that would have been a lie even I couldn’t tell with a straight face.

What I can tell you is that my parent’s devotion to me and to one another and to their faith has taught me so much–about sticking it out, going the distance, forgiveness, and sifting for the good. Even when my mother was lost in Alzheimer’s, I held on. I knew they’d hold onto me, onto each other.

Marriage for me, is now a landscape. It’s everything we’ve celebrated and everything we’ve endured–and all the quiet days that on in between.

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Fighting. Arguing. Not talking. Hurt Feelings. It comes with caregiving.

You can’t have a long-term relationship and this level of intimacy without a few squabbles, and even a couple of all-out wars. Yes, you’re a grown woman–and so is your mom (it might be you and your dad) –but that doesn’t stop the button pushing, back-handed comments, turn-the-knife-in-the-back digs from creeping in.

How do you get over a big fight?

I remember one fight my mom and I had after she moved in with me (we had plenty of doozies before this)–and it really hurt. I was adopted at the age of four and I’m glad I was. I made peace with that a long time ago. I’ve found my birth family and feel that I have at least most of the puzzle pieces of my life to help me figure out who I am, who I belong to–and who belongs to me. My mother is my adoptive mom and I’ve long known her good–and despicable qualities. But that day, she cut me to the bone. 

She told me that my caring for her now was the reason she adopted me in the first place. I felt used. I felt manipulated.

Yes, I knew she and Daddy loved me. We had years of love and care between us, but this felt so cold. I wasn’t mad. I was hurt–and disgusted.

After that, I could barely stand to care for her. I gave her food. I gave her meds. I changed her sheets. But I couldn’t offer not even one kind word. I spent days feeling everything from numb to explosively enraged. I journaled, walked, cried, and screamed.

Did I get over? Yeah. Somehow. I had already made a commitment and it wasn’t based on what she could say or do to me. It was based on a decision. I had to to dig way down deep to find the integrity to get me past this hurdle.

I so wanted to just walk out that door and keep walking.

Forgiveness isn’t all sweetsy. It isn’t about two people hugging and groveling and snotting all over each other. Forgiveness is a decision. It doesn’t have to be warm and fuzzy. It comes in increments. We forgive because we have to–for ourselves.

I can’t ever be expected to receive mercy for the despicable things I’ve said and done (and we’re all in the same boat here) if I can’t offer it. And I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to make lots of deposits in my mercy bank–in case I need a lot of credits in my favor.

It wasn’t easy, but routine and memory help smooth the path. Every day, I got up and prepped her meds. I changed her sheets and gowns. I fed her breakfast. My body knew what to do even when my heart rebelled. I don’t know how long it took. I just let my physical care be enough for awhile. I needed to not push myself–and I knew that it was my job to protect my heart.

Slowly, the memories of all our good times, of the other hard times we’d gotten through surfaced. I was in it for the long haul. I was there to finish the journey. Even if she didn’t love me (and I knew she did), I loved her.

I share this rather personal story because there’s someone out there in “blog-land” who is hurting. They don’t know if they can keep going. It was more than a fight. It was a rip in the fabric of their relationship.

I hope somehow, my story, my experience helps.

~Carol O’Dell

Author, Mothering Mother

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This Mother’s Day, I’m acutely aware of the lessons my mother taught me. Some are from her good example, her “momisms” she passed on through wit and wisdom, and at times, she taught me best by being a living example of how to do things differently.

What Mothers Teach Their Daughters:

What it means to be a woman.

Whether our mothers neglected themselves physically or emotionally, or taught us self-love and nurturing by example, or by neglect. Everything from body image to daily habits to whether we believe we’re prone to depression can be traced back to our mothers. It’s not that they were screaming, “Believe everything I say.” It’s more the power of a whisper.

How we view men.

Whether we like it or not, our mother’s voices linger in our heads and we base subconscious decisions on the words and actions, particularly when it comes to how we view our fathers (“He’s such a moron!” or “Your father is a good, good man”). Separating our experiences from theirs can be a challenge. Just because our mothers were “unlucky at love,” doesn’t mean we will be–or vice versa.

How we view women.

Did your mother have good friendships? Did she surround herself with a circle of estrogen? Did she have a best friend–or was it all catty, gossipy, destructive relationships that subliminally taught you that women couldn’t be trusted? When you have a problem, do you have a friend to call to work through your issues–whether big or small–whether it’s whining about your cramps or getting fired? Our mothers influence how we perceive women–as friend or foe.

Our own perceptions of our ability to mother.

Deep down, we believe things about ourselves–that we’re a good driver, or not–that we’ll be able to hold our tempers and be naturally attentive, easily confident moms, or if we’ll be the nervous, flighty kind. Most of us have this quiet, ongoing dialogue running in our heads that tell us about ourselves. It takes keen observance to hear these looping taped messages, and it takes diligence to analyze them and decide what messages to keep–and what to shred.

After years of being told what to do, we rebel either inwardly or for some, outwardly. This is necessary. We need to begin to think for ourselves, act for ourselves, and the best way to do that is by getting angry, beligerent, and yell, “I don’t see it your way, Mom.” That’s our first tiny root that sprouts to form our independent lives. It takes this jet fuel of anger, rebellion, or “I’m not you, Mother,” to begin to push away from the only home we’ve ever known. To make our own homes. Our own lives.

It’s not all bad news. Our mother’s effect is powerful–and can be our ally.

For most of us, we eventually make peace with our mothers. We have to. Why? Because it’s also a way to make peace with ourselves. The sound of their voice, the cadence in their speech, their smell, their thoughts on everything from religion to nail polish give us something to ponder.

Are we like them? In some ways. But one of the greatest lessons we learn is that the friction between mothers and daughters is in many ways, a good thing. We get to decide everyday–do we agree or disagree, do accept their teachings or forge a different path.

For me, my mother taught me:

That a strong woman is to be respected, but she won’t always be liked.

She taught me that adoring your husband and thinking he’s strong and handsome makes you look good. After all, you picked him out.

She taught me that humor can redeem a difficult person. She taught me that families take care of each other.

She taught me that standing up for myself was the only way I could be around her.

She taught me that dressing for one position higher than I currently am causes people to treat you differently.

She taught me that Southern food is in my opinion, about the best cuisine on the face of the earth.

She taught me that girlfriends can really make difference when you hit a bad patch.

She taught me that saying good things about your children makes you almost believe it’s all true. 

She taught me that caregiving is full circle, and yes, it’ll just about break you, you’ll learn more about yourself than you care to ponder.

She taught me that having a good attitude is about the only thing you can control.

She taught me that love is complex and you’d be surprised what all you can forgive–but in the end–redemption is sweet. 

What did your mom teach you?

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother

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