Monday 10 April 2023

Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver


When Dr. Zachary White and I were in the research phase of writing The Unexpected Journey of Caring, we talked about a phenomenon that we were observing in caregiver support groups online. Zachary called it “the great migration.” More and more caregivers (mostly women) were moving away from their own families to care for aging parents sometimes in another part of the country. Usually precipitated by some kind of crisis, most caregivers believed that a live-in stay with a parent would be temporary but many remained trapped in the role for years, apart from husbands or wives and children. This is what happened to Gretchen Staebler, author of the riveting memoir Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver. 

To anyone who has ever or WILL ever care for a parent, I recommend reading this book. The author fearlessly dissects her complicated relationship with her mother Stellajoe and her two sisters. The ghost of a beloved father is a shadowy presence throughout. Childhood relationships and old patterns become wholly unhelpful when Stellajoe becomes an unwilling dependent on her daughters. But it is Gretchen who has the greatest burden of care. 

Regular readers of my blog will recall my own caregiving journey with my Mom and then my complicated emotions when she died in August of 2018. I think my mother and Stellajoe would have been friends – they would have had a gleeful competition about how they could exert a crazy kind of control and then watch their exasperated daughters slink away in tears of defeated frustration. Gretchen Staebler’s words struck a deep chord: “This had seemed like a good idea. What the hell was I thinking?” 

I remember once, when my Mom had a life-threatening case of salmonella that she contracted from tainted peanuts, I rushed home to Montreal from London. My sister was exhausted and I was living abroad. I knew that when I came home, I could devote all of my time and energy to Mom’s care without distraction of my own family’s needs. I could offer my sister a REAL break – it was the least I could do. So I came for two weeks and navigated my mother from the hospital back to her senior’s residence with a lot of highly recommended homecare workers I hired to assist. When I arrived back in the UK, I called my Mom. “I just want you to know that I made it back fine”, I said. Mom: “You’re going to be mad.” ME: “What? Why?” MOM: “I fired them all. I had nothing in common with them. They don’t ski.” I could have wept. Or screamed. Gretchen Staebler’s book brought all this back, but the pulsing vein of love on every page rang true for me too. 

The author’s vow to stay with her mother for one year evaporates and a series of Stellajoe’s health crises confound the author’s attempts to carve out personal space and a life of her own. One year turns into nearly six. But the author’s mind and heart are not idle. She is learning deep life lessons of what she can control and what she cannot. She is learning to make peace with her past, present and her future. She is learning to make peace with her mother. 

 The author describes her newfound wisdom with truth and poignancy: As the miles rolled away, though, I slowly let go of my grip on what I thought my life would be as I turned sixty and began to look through the windshield rather than the rearview mirror Mama and I are tied to each other by an invisible elastic band, stretching only so far before reaching its capacity and snapping us back together. 

The title of my first book, The Four Walls of My Freedom is taken from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in which he writes about how when he arrived at his monastery for the first time, he found “the four walls of my new freedom.” When our son Nicholas was born with severe disabilities, my baby and I became homebound. We needed to discover a path to a liveable, even a good life within our four walls. Gretchen Staebler quotes Merton too, coming the same realization as me: Merton writes on how we have to come to terms with the idea that our efforts, no matter how sincere, may be “worthless.” He reflects: As you get used to the idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. . . . In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything. And later, The central question…. would have to change from ‘What do I want?’ to ‘What is available?’ 

I have been thinking a lot about my own mother since reading this book. How I sat by the river when she died, wondering, “Who was my mother? Who was she to me and me to her? What is my story about her? The old stories don’t work anymore, they don’t feel true. I just don’t know.” Later, I realized that I had to forgive my mother for being imperfect. And I realized my task was to mother myself in a way that I needed so that I could be released by forgiveness to love her. I have a lot in common with Gretchen Staebler and I bet every caregiver of a complicated mother does too. 

Please read this book.


Anonymous said...

I read this book before sending to a friend in the throes of this very same experience. Having my own experience, complicated parents moving to my home city, while I was caring for a son with profound needs and 2 younger sons. I did not want to send a book that might be off base, as far as I was concerned. This book indeed fleshes out the myriad of complexities this journey compels us to examine.
As for your book and Merton's truer words spoken.
Diane Stonecipher

keven john said...

Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver is a compelling and heartfelt memoir that delves into the challenges and complexities of becoming a caregiver for a loved one. Through this deeply personal narrative, the author candidly shares their journey of assuming the role of caregiver,Professional Essay Writers Uk offering a raw and honest account of the emotional and practical aspects of this life-changing responsibility