Connections | Magazine

When the tables turn on mother and child

I became my mom’s caretaker, and my own daughter will eventually do the same for me.

eleanor doughty for the boston globe

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My aging mother lived in a small upstairs apartment in our family home, where her presence was both a joy and a burden. She was an old-school Yankee from Vermont, and pride and self-reliance were an unofficial religion where she was raised. Any favor she asked of me, her first child and only daughter — or, in a real pinch, of SIL (pronounced “sill”), as she called my husband, her son-in-law — was the result of absolute necessity and came with a heartfelt apology for imposing.

Because she was well organized and lived simply, it was easy to overlook the signs that she was not managing her daily tasks in the same quiet, efficient way she always had. I saw her numerous times every day, and she seemed to be doing well. Perhaps there were a few more cobwebs in the corners, or she was willing to let the dishes soak overnight rather than leaving the kitchen spotless before she went to bed. But her bed was made. She was washed and dressed. She made regular meals for herself and never missed her afternoon cheese and crackers with a small glass of Wild Turkey.

It shames me now to admit that some of my inattention to the signs of that inevitable slide toward dependence came from fear of what the ultimate burden might look like and how it would affect my already stressful and busy life.


One evening she called me on the phone and tearfully begged, “Please come up right away.” As I flew up the stairs, I knew in my heart that this was a defining moment in the relationship between my mother and me, that the lines between being the mother and being the child would be blurred forever in that gray area where roles shift and ultimate responsibility for all of life’s important decisions changes hands.

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Last November, my first child and only daughter came back home to live in my mother’s old apartment, empty since she died in 2004. Coincidentally, Rachel returned several weeks after I had ruptured a disk and done nerve and muscle damage to my right knee. Another medical issue required day surgery and a slow recovery.

Although she had not lived at home for over 10 years, Rachel and I had remained close in the immediate and easy ways made possible by the Internet and social media. But her daily physical presence and her cheerful willingness to sit with me in the hospital were a spiritual balm, as I hope my presence was for my mother when she was growing older.

Several weeks after Rachel came home, I was sitting on the sofa, cane at my side, and she was bringing me a drink, or retrieving my orthopedic cushion, or performing some other task that was proof of my inability to be independent and self-reliant. Noting her stressed demeanor, and experiencing a small window of clarity despite the still necessary pain medication, I remembered the moment when I ran upstairs to answer my mother’s call.

“You know,” I said, “I remember how difficult it was for me when I first realized that Grandma Avis was struggling to manage her daily life. I’m sure it’s hard for you to see me with a cane, having trouble walking and being in pain.”


Her face softened and she said, “Yes. That’s true. It is sad and hard for me.”

It is sad and hard for me, too. Now I am the aging parent, and we are entering that blurred, gray area, where sometimes she will be the mother and I the child. I know it is the nature of human life, this decline and the passing on of responsibility, and it is not ultimately under our control. For each of us, though, it is both a joy and a burden.

Martha Hurwitz is a writer in Barre. Send comments to Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.

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