By Esther Mann, LCSW
I am 42 years old. I grew up the youngest in my family and there is a large age difference between my two older siblings and me. Though in the scheme of things my parents weren’t seriously old when I was born, that it how I always viewed them. I never thought of either of them as being healthy. My father had diabetes and there was always concern about his heart. My mother suffered from severe arthritis and was often in too much pain to accomplish what most mothers were able to.
I became the little caretaker from a very early age. I remember always checking in on my parents, asking what I could do for them. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but I look back on myself as a little seven-year-old girl sometimes preparing food for my mother, who couldn’t seem to get out of bed all day, or checking in on my father to see what he needed. I know I had a lot of responsibility, way more than I should have had.
Meanwhile, my parents are still alive, kvetching along with their same old complaints, and sometimes I think they will outlive everyone. I am still the dutiful daughter—calling often, running errands for them, making sure they are well cared for. Protecting them from anything negative. My older brother and sister are involved, but not to the same degree as I am, by a long shot.
Now I have a family of my own—three sons, one daughter, and a husband who leaves a lot to be desired. I often think that if we always got what we deserved in this life, I would have been blessed with the best of husbands and the most wonderful children, just based on how devoted I have always been to my parents. But my situation couldn’t be further from that.
My husband is a difficult man. And, as my children have reached adolescence and beyond, each one of them has put me through the mill. All four of them have distinct issues that have made for a troubling household and much chaos and pain. I don’t know why things have turned out this way and if there is specific blame that I should be taking upon myself, but that isn’t the purpose of this letter.
Here is my question to you. Because I have always tried to protect my parents in every way possible, I’ve never shared with them the struggles of my marriage. I’m sure they can see for themselves that my husband isn’t the most fabulous guy around. But little do they know about what he has put me through. And for the past number of years, as I’ve been going through hell with my children, I continue to protect my parents and not let on that most days create excruciating new challenges for me to deal with—that I often stay up all night crying into my pillow, wondering what will be. I don’t share with my parents my anger, my sadness, or my pain.
Because it’s so important to me to bring on a sunny face whenever I am with my parents, I sometimes feel as though I’m about to bust, while pretending so my parents don’t have anything to worry about on my account.
It’s recently gotten to a breaking point. The pretending is getting to be too much for me. I fear that if I share the facts of my life with my parents, my father will literally have a heart attack.
I don’t know what to do. Some days I just want to run away from everyone and everything—not deal anymore. It feels like I’m holding my life together by a thread and the thread is about to rip apart. It’s all becoming too much for me already. I want to jump ship!
What do I do? Do I stop the charade with my parents and tell them about all the gory details of my life so that I don’t have to be constantly playacting with them? I keep worrying that somehow something will be revealed to them anyway. I just feel as though I can’t do this anymore.
You’ve always been such a good girl! And though you are now well into adulthood, that has not changed. Often, families seem to have an identified hero. That one person who is able to put their own needs behind the needs of the other family members. The one who takes on the responsibility of the caregiver. Someone who keeps the family functioning as well as possible. There is no doubt that you are that person, the hero, and you assumed that role perhaps before you were old enough to even know how to spell “hero.”
But heroes often become casualties. It’s not easy to be all things to all people. When one is so busy taking care of everyone else, sometimes there just isn’t enough energy left over to care for oneself. I suspect that, while growing up, you missed out many times on just being a child. While your peers were busy running around without a care in the world, you were probably struggling to put together something for your mother to eat. But you did it graciously and it sounds to me as though you have no complaints from those years. Though there was definitely a negative emotional component to the quality of your life, namely worrying about your parents’ health, the toll it took on you was probably more physical in nature. Getting the job done. Keeping up. Doing it all.
I agree—if life were fair and people got what they deserved, you’d be sitting more than a little pretty right now. You would have a husband treating you like the queen that you are. You would have children who figured out how to model themselves after you, busy making the world a better place and, all the while, making you proud. Life would be good and rewarding. Unfortunately, it’s obvious that all too often, things do not work out that way.
As a result, your stress level has risen way beyond its boiling point and you’re ready to blow. We can’t let that happen. You can’t let that happen. Something must be done to enable you to let off steam and find a better way to carry on.
Regarding the charade that you continue to engage in for the sake of your parents, I would not advise you to go for a full-out reveal. Though I don’t think you would, G‑d forbid, give your father a heart attack, I’m not sure what good it would do anyone at this point to start going through all of the awful details of your marriage or your children with them. I would, however, stop pretending. You don’t have to always show up as Pollyanna. If you’re having a bad day, you can say you’re having a bad day, without going into detail. If you’re so down that you can barely muster the energy to converse with your mother on the phone, make it a 30-second call.
Frankly, my guess is that your parents suspect way more than you know. It’s hard to believe that they are so clueless about your difficulties with your husband or children. And if they are, shame on them. You’ve tuned in to their needs for your entire life. As parents, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad for them to care enough to tune in to your needs, despite your attempts at cover-ups. And very possibly they have.
For now, you do need help. You need a strong support team of friends and, if available, family, whom you can talk to and basically to whom you can spill out all that you’ve been keeping inside of you all this time. People who are loving and supportive can tolerate this process. They should be able to sit with you and allow you to feel they are sharing your angst, thereby taking some of the burden off your shoulders. It’s amazing how invigorating and life-affirming it can feel to be able to discuss some of the most vile details of your life with friends who won’t judge you and will only feel compassion and love for you.
Rather than jump ship, maybe you can come up with a mini-vacation that allows you to get away for a while with a friend or, if it’s your cup of tea, by yourself. Take some time off to regroup and reenergize yourself. Your children are probably not fully developed, and no one knows how their lives will ultimately play out. But, for now, it’s time for you to move yourself to the front of the line and assume the spot of number one. You’re so gifted at helping everyone else. How about giving yourself a shot at being the recipient of your care? It’s about time!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.