Millions of Americans are caring for aging parents and grown children at the same time, and they often find themselves wondering, How is it possible to care for our families and ourselves at the same time? In Living with Momma, pastor Elizabeth B. Adams draws on her own life experiences to show caregivers who are serious about establishing rewarding relationships with adult family members how they can enjoy their challenging living arrangements.
She also offers a practical tool: three questions for caregivers to ask for immediate change—to help them find a safe space of hope and faith, and protect themselves from caregiver fatigue.
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The Essence of a Caring Person
All real living is meeting.
– Martin Buber
Deciphering our family secrets takes us into the heart of the family's mysterious power to impact our lives. I call this journey in the family's secret world soul-searching. ... It asks us to listen to stories without our previous judgments and our habituated ways of understanding.
– John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds
Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.
– Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher
Karen worked as a dental assistant for 26 years and was sure she could not take the high-pitched sound of the drill for one more minute. The office had been getting on her last nerve since her boss retired and all the changes started. The once small family practice was sold to a group of investors, who built on the name and added more people. It seemed to Karen that all the new owners cared about was making a profit.
Lately, she had been feeling that even the everyday sounds at home were just as hard to ignore, too. Since her adult son moved back home, sometimes she would drive around the neighborhood to delay going in the front door. She knew that when she walked in, the TV would be blaring and yet another big mess — that she had not made — would need cleaning up before she could start cooking dinner. No longer wanting to go to work or be home, she felt she did not have anywhere restful or enjoyable to go anymore.
When I met with Karen to discuss her life in the clan of the sandwich generation, she had come to a tipping point in her work-life balance. Her energy, emotions, and concentration skills were pouring out faster than could be replenished and her life felt out of control.
The term sandwich generation applies to people who are living their lives sandwiched between an aging parent and an adult child. In twenty-first century America, there are millions of us and that number is growing faster than we can train professionals to help support this life shift.
I handed Karen a cup of coffee and started our conversation.
"So, Karen," I said. "Could you please get us started by telling me why your adult child lives with you?"
"Well, he doesn't have money for a new place," she said in a desperate tone of voice. He got kicked out of his old apartment for having a dog that was not on the lease."
"Okay, but why does he live with you?" I emphasized the word you in case she did not hear that my question was about her, not her son.
"Well, his girlfriend's mother is a whack-a-doodle, and she —" Karen crossed her arms and talked louder than before, as though she thought I had not been listening the first time she spoke.
"Um, excuse me, Karen," I softly interrupted. "What I am trying to get clarity on is why your twenty-nine-year-old son lives ... with ...you?"
"I told you. He has nowhere else to go," Karen stated sharply. Her anger started to show around the edges of her eyes.
"Really?" I asked. "Nowhere? Your house is the only one?"
This is when she gave me that look. You know the look. Like a second head had begun to pop out right between my shoulders, and she couldn't understand why someone so odd was sitting before her.
"Okay, let me ask you this," I began again in an even softer voice. "What if you were not here? Let's imagine, for whatever reason, an illness, an accident, or something has taken you out of the equation. Where would your son be living today if your home was not an option?"
Karen's face twisted like she had licked a lemon, and she replied, "I don't want to think about those things. I am here. I can't imagine if my child had nowhere to live. I want him to live with me."
"So, you want your son to live with you," I repeated. She had finally said out loud the real reason her son was living with her.
Karen had just experienced a lot of emotions in a very short time span. She went from being confused, to frustrated, to angry, to sad and slightly tearful all within a few minutes because I asked her one question about living with her adult child.
That was when I asked her the first of two questions I ask everyone who lives with an aging parent or adult child. It is the question I have started (or ended) my own days with for the last ten years.
"Karen, can you please tell me what the best thing is about living with your adult child?"
It took a minute before she spoke, but a slight smile came on her lips and she started to tell me about the time he ...
And that was when it happened, that moment.
A slight smile, an unexpected spark, changed the energy in the room. It spread to her eyes, and then back to her mouth in light laughter. Karen experienced that "moment" I love to witness when people are willing to (re)tell their story from the point of view of the "best thing about (the other person)." These stories come from a special place. That place is what theologians call the soul or essence; scholars call it presence or self; and gurus call it consciousness or self-awareness. I call it LIVING in the good. LIVING in the good is where we are seeking and experiencing the many connections between what is both human and divine within us. These connections are precious to our essential selves and throughout this book we will explore open-ended questions like the one Karen used to bring together or unite the spiritual with the human side of our caregiver selves.
The Differences Between the Caretaker Self and the Caregiver Self
As a pastoral caregiver, I see LIVING as that space where humanity and divinity get a chance to meet. It is that feeling of calm, when we experience a peace that transcends all understanding. That transcendent moment when we know there is something bigger than ourselves, that connection that brings a sense of well-being. Karen's "best thing about" moment helped her calm her emotions and tap into the powerful source of peace inside her instead of remaining caught in the draining drama of being a constant caretaker and rarely a caregiver.
Caretakers are the busy working people who keep our world functioning. Loosely defined, they are those who support a person, an animal, or someone's property, with physical and emotional general upkeep. Often they are employed to take care of something or someone and are paid accordingly.
Caretakers can work long or short hours, depending on the specific needs of whom or what they are caring for, and those needs will constantly be changing with the seasons of the year. Studies are showing that the average person caring for aging parents will be working up to an additional (read: unpaid) 20 to 40 hours a week within the tasks of providing meals, basic domestic and general hygiene, doctors visits, dispensing medication, finding financial and medical resources, and companionship.
Being our caretaker self is essential to the needs of many in our community. It is our task-keeping, left-brain-thinking, organizational-skill-loving part of ourselves. The caretaker self, for whatever reason, wants to stay busy. It needs to stay busy. Yet, it's also the side of ourselves that craves vacations, or time off, because we know we were also created with a promise we often forget to claim, the promise of a day of rest. "And on the seventh day God rested" (Gen. 2:1–3). Yep, I said it out-loud-even God-rested so why don't we?
Caretakers and Caregivers are different sides of the same person. The Caregiver Self is the essence of our spiritual self. The caregiver is the soulful side of ourselves that challenges the concepts that we are fixed and unchanging beings but are instead beings who are created for the "AHA!" moments in life. The caregiver side knows the impact that care and compassion have on our own hearts and minds while we are serving our family. It is that divine part of ourselves that can help us identify our strengths, forgive our weaknesses, and then cultivate both into life-giving successes. It is that sweet spark within us that notices a beautiful sunset, that space between hungry and satisfied, and that whisper which proclaims today was a good day, right before we fall asleep at night.
What if that peaceful, joyful, connected state Karen found in her "best thing about" story is who we really are made to be as caring people? As a former hospital chaplain, I have often witnessed these memorable moments when people meet peace just when they have reached a tipping point. The human and the divine meet in their lives, or, better said, the caretaker and the caregiver meet in their lives. These moments are in the first breath of your newborn child and will be in the last breath of your aging parent. Some of us have felt these moments at weddings, when we watch a bride and groom unite, when we move backward into the memories of our own union while being fully present in the current one.
Simply using a positive story to reframe her reactions to her son, Karen, however briefly, felt hope and joy. She had a moment when she again loved being her son's mother, instead of being the woman who "felt overworked and underappreciated." It was a LIVING moment when her soul/spirit helped her seek what was good in her life. It was a moment when the divine image she was created to be could remind her of how "very good" she is and how good life could be — as it has been since the beginning of time. It can also be when we are powerfully reminded that we were made in the image of the unconditionally Loving Creator of the universe (Gen. 1:27–31, 2:4–7).
Doing No Harm Does NOT Mean Do Nothing
When we want to have more hope or joy while in difficult living situations, our essential caring selves may need help to reframe our actions to allow those moments. I am not talking about living in a Pollyanna moment, where we refuse to see what is happening all around us or just go numb to what is hard (or painful) as a way of coping with trauma.
No. No. No.
LIVING in the good requires us to look directly into the areas of our lives that need attention to regain a healthy spiritual and physical life. We are more like surgeons than happy-go-lucky Pollyanna's. How? Like a surgeon or a doctor, we must pledge to do no harm when we see ourselves in an unhealthy state of living, but that does not mean we do nothing. We must notice where the problem is, be observant of where to cut into the flesh, then assess and discern the next steps in healing. We would never want a surgeon to say, "Oh, look, we found a small unidentified mass that is blocking a connection between your heart and your brain. Let's just live with it, shall we?" Umm ... No. We would rather have our brains and our hearts working together for optimal health and this is true for our human and spiritual health as well. What if that peaceful, joyful, loving connected state is who we really are made to be — but because we do not consciously connect the spiritual with the physical we lose sight of why we are caregivers at all?
Even a professional caregiver like me had to learn that these meetings of peace can be experienced every day. They do not require a unique or even a large event, like a birth, a death, or a wedding, to arise. I started seeking those moments not just for the feeling but to manifest qualities like open-hearted compassion and the wisdom found in reflection, to hear the spiritual self-soul-spirit, and to start LIVING a joyful life, even in difficult times.
But, if these meetings of the body and soul happen all the time, why don't we see them all the time? Hold on to your seats, I suggest this lack of connection more often than not, is because we are caring people.
Wait, what? That sounds wrong. Why would being a caring person prevent me from living good moments more often? My favorite spiritual teacher, Parker J. Palmer, would say it is because "the soul is shy and needs to feel safe to come out." Simply put- I had to learn that my caregiver self (my spiritual life) was just waiting to come out and interact with my caretaker self (physical life). I needed to learn how to allow safe spaces for my busy and necessary caretaker self to interact with my peaceful nurturing caregiver self. I needed to come to it slowly (speaking gently with questions) and with unwrapped gifts of spiritual fruit, grown ripe with contemplation, to create daily safe spaces for my humanity to enjoy meeting with my spirituality.
Learning to Use Both Sides of our Essential Caring Self, at the Same Time
As a pastoral caregiver, I base my counseling on the premise that we have both a human and a spiritual side and that they need to operate together for us to flourish in our essential selves. To operate together they must meet. By taking care of my own aging parent and adult children, I came to realize that I get so busy doing the wrong things — for what I believed were the right reasons — that I forgot we do not have "to do" things to be a loving person. This realization is at once a source of freedom and shame. It is a vision of what unconditional love can look like and sadly, it can be a form of love we have rarely ever seen before.
Being unconditionally loving, or feeling like we do not have to be/act perfect to be loved, can be an upsetting experience. Many of our societal assumptions and unquestioned solutions lose meaning and can no longer function in a space of being unconditionally loved. Being willing to listen to the essential truths spoken by our essential selves when they are connected together is what Fr. Thomas Merton would have called letting go of our "false self" and what Parker Palmer would call "a hidden wholeness." I have been privileged to have spoken with many students of these spiritual teachers, who say seeking to discover our hidden wholeness or facing our false self is life changing. I suggest, that by allowing ourselves to learn to use both sides of our Essential Caring Selves at the same time was and is life giving for me and the others you will be reading narratives from within this book.
We will talk about this more in the coming chapters, but that leads me to ask: Why would people want their human and spiritual selves to meet more often? Maybe, like me, you have noticed that always doing the right thing — but for unexplored reasons — is making you tired, sick, angry, and somehow a bit bitter and are not really sure why. I will be giving you personal narratives and stories like Karen's in this book, for you to explore how becoming "good" storytellers to our spiritual care-giving selves can coax a better way to live with hard and normal life events. Learning to be conscious of interactions with our human caretaker self and spiritual caregiver self allows us to answer questions which ask: Do I have the freedom and/or confidence to make choices for the good of everyone including myself?
The combined wisdom of our caretaking and caregiving selves can build community stories that liberate our minds and actions from the existing structures (habits, fears, dogmatic roles) that often leave us tired, angry, scared, or shut down when we are in the middle of stressful life situations. We can begin finding answers to how we can take care of our families and ourselves for both spiritual and physical reasons. We can firmly challenge why we want to continue trying to "do it all" and find ways to stop experiencing the anger, frustration, and exhaustion that result from trying to get it all done.
We Were Created Physically and Spiritually To BE in Communities
Our very DNA is built on us being caregivers in a community. Anthropologists have found evidence that, for thousands of years, whole communities of our nomadic ancestors carried their wounded, crippled, and young from place to place when seeking food and other resources for survival. Why did they do that? The people they were carrying could not contribute to the group's well-being and yet the community expended precious energy transporting them with each move.
This seems counterproductive to survival, right? It's all about survival of the fittest, isn't it? Nope. When re-reading Charles Darwin, we can see that his theory of survival is not about being the biggest and the strongest, as commonly believed. It is about being the one who discovers the ability to adapt or change within the sometimes unbearable pressures of an ever-changing world.
Countless studies and curated experiences tell us that humans have an essential need for community and that it is just as necessary for our survival as food, water, and shelter from the elements.
Spiritually speaking, we were also created in a community of "others." In the creation story even God was not alone. There were "others" in the discussion during creation of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:26). Adam was not complete without Eve because it was not good to be alone (Gen. 2:18). And the only command that Jesus spoke was to "love one another as I have loved you" forcing us into relationships in which to practice our spiritual truths (John 13:34). The biblical concept of caring for "one another" is a main theme in all of Judeo-Christian theology spreading from the Torah all the way into Revelations.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Living with Momma"
Copyright © 2019 Elizabeth B. Adams, MAPT.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Essence of a Caring Person,
Chapter 2 Finding Meaning in the Experience of Caregiving,
Chapter 3 Loving Your Peace,
Chapter 4 Integrity of Goodness,
Chapter 5 Valuing Patience,
Chapter 6 Insightful Self-Control,
Chapter 7 Non-judgmental Faith,
Chapter 8 Guiding Joy,
Chapter 9 Living a Good Life,
Chapter 10 Conclusion: The paradox of being human and being created in the image of God,
About the Author,