One of the major stressors my clients encounter is caring for aging parents needing help due to paring down belongings and moving, sickness or surgery, or simply managing tasks they can no longer do as they grow older. Even if providing help doesn’t drive clients to eat emotionally, it’s certainly a drain on their emotional resources. In the best of relationships between parent and child, this endeavor can be time-consuming and energy-sapping. In the worst, it can feel like a downright burden.
If you were well-loved and well treated by your parents, you probably have similarly positive feelings toward them. You want them to feel safe, secure, and happy and don’t much mind doing whatever you can to make that happen. Although grocery shopping, taking them to medical appointments, taking over bill-paying or calling or visiting them more frequently may take time out of your busy schedule, you don’t begrudge doing this for them. They took care of you and now it’s fine that you are able to return the favor.
However, if your parents did or do not treat you well because of substance abuse or mental health issues of their own, you most likely have mixed feelings about doing for them when they didn’t or don’t do for you. This is normal and natural and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s hard not to feel conflicted about someone you’re supposed to love and cherish when you feel that they didn’t or don’t love and cherish you.
Some of my clients are taking care of parents who physically or emotionally mistreated them, refused to acknowledge and do anything about a sibling that sexually abused them, or abandoned them as children and are now begging for their help. Anyone would expect these clients to have resentment, bitterness, rage or indifference to such parents. But, anyone would also not be surprised that these clients feel terribly torn about providing help. Some feel guilty when they say no and others constantly wonder whether they’re doing enough. Many can’t let go of wanting the love, validation, and appreciation that their parents still can’t give them. Others are furious and resentful.
If any of the above rings true for you, acknowledge your feelings even if they feel contradictory and all over the place. Stop mindless eating to make yourselves feel better. Find someone to talk to about them—a friend, family member or therapist. Sort out what you’re willing to do for your parents and understand why you’re doing it. If not out of love but a duty, so be it. Allow yourself to feel compassion for whatever happened to them in childhood to make them as difficult as they are or were. Try to let go of resenting giving care you didn’t get. You don’t have to care for them; make it a choice.