health

When My Dad Had a Stroke, I Realized That ‘Balance’ Is Impossible

Low angle view of happy African American little girl having fun with her parents in nature during autumn and looking at camera.

Wondering aloud why my California-based sister would be calling at 7 a.m. Boston time, my husband picked up his buzzing phone. Something had happened to my dad. A blood clot, brain surgery later that day. The doctor suggested that family members come to the hospital. It wasn’t clear what the outcome of the surgery would be.

On the face of it, deciding where my body belonged that frightening day was obvious and simple. But thanks to inopportune timing, clarity evaporated. When that phone rang, I was living in a hotel in the last weeks of a two-month period of itinerancy between homes. I had commitments to patients in my psychology practice, university research duties, responsibilities to my two young children, and, oh yes, a pregnancy nearing its due date. My partner was also juggling: an itinerant life, children, a tired pregnant wife, and his own demanding job.

The question of where to place your body, and your mind as a working parent is exhausting and ever-changing stuff. Add in an aging parent’s illness and things are going to get even thornier. Not even the most dramatic of life circumstances can erase the daily responsibilities of making sure your young kids get fed and keep their fingers out of electric sockets. And after the drama is over, you may still want or need a job (if only so you can occasionally pay someone else to prevent your child from electrocuting him or herself). Knowing which direction to send your energy and attention is infinitely complicated. Even when it seems like it shouldn’t be.

The on-the-ground reality for most working parents is that choosing between important roles that you value—and where you are needed—feels like an unsolvable riddle. The tension between important life roles is the basis of an ongoing cultural conversation about balancing work and family. But as many children of baby boomers have realized, that “work-life balance” question is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the US Census Bureau, first births for women age 30 and older have skyrocketed in recent years. This means that as baby boomers enter their 60’s and 70’s, they are getting their first grandchildren and are facing growing health concerns and caregiving needs of their own.

The children of baby boomers, then, are likely to be faced with caregiving demands on both sides of the age spectrum.

In addition to the demands of elder care and childcare, the majority of parents also have professional responsibilities. Statistics show that more parents are working to support their families than ever; dual income households have increased from 25% in 1960 to 60% in 2012. Even the most flexible of jobs requires some sort of physical or virtual presence. Extensive and ill-timed caregiving burdens can make it challenging to show up professionally.

It’s a balancing act on steroids for many of the now adult children of baby boomers. But it’s more than a practical matter; it’s a heart-wrenching one.

As a clinical psychologist, I work with patients juggling valued roles of child, parent, professional, and partner. Those fortunate to have so many valued roles are forced to accept falling short in one or more of those roles in any given moment on any given day. Not because they don’t care, and not because they are flawed in performing these roles. Rather, because that is the reality of a life lived with one body that has many functions and in which our functions pull in opposing directions.

But accepting that reality is just a first step. Then comes the work of dealing with the practical and emotional fallout. Missing a bonding opportunity with your child, dropping the ball on an important professional project, or failing to show up for a parent who has suddenly fallen ill is practically challenging and emotionally painful.

The day my father had a stroke, I was confronted with an urgent decision about where to place my body. Even the “right” choice about what to prioritize—my dad— came with costs to my children, partner, friends, colleagues, and to my identity as someone who “shows up” where I am needed. To prevent my own behavioral and emotional paralysis, I needed to accept my own limits—I was one body with many important roles.

Finding yourself pulled in multiple directions when you are one body means making difficult choices. There’s no way around it. So in a moment, like the one I had the day I got that phone call, the best you can do is take a deep breath and re-orient yourself. Whatever role you prioritize in that moment is where your mind and your heart can be most effective. In that moment, aspire to fully be in that one role you chose and recognize that the future will find your priorities reversed.

And as you take that breath, remind yourself that you are, in fact, very blessed to have too many roles to succeed in at once.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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