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Torn Between Caring for Older Parents

QUESTION: My husband and I have been married for one year, and we have been together for seven. I am 30 and he is 34. I am an only child, and my parents are older than most, with my father being 84 and my mother 70. We have no other extended family living near us (my parents are from England) and now that my parents are getting old the burden of responsibility for caring for them is mine exclusively.

My father is very frail, and my mother, being much younger, looks after him. She is a very bitter person, and is getting worse all the time. On one hand she does not want anything to happen to my dad, but on the other she resents that he is old and can't do very much anymore. I try to do what I can for them, take them shopping, take them out for the day or a weekend, to try to make their life a little better. They have no friends either, so they are housebound and isolated.

My responsibility to my parents, and my parents themselves (particularly my mother) is causing problems for me in my marriage. My mother is a very difficult person, very negative and easily angered. She does not care for my husband, and she lets him know it. He does not want to be around them much, and I can understand that, but he also feels I should not be so involved in their lives, or worry about them so much. I realize my own health is suffering because of my worrying, but I don't know what else to do. I am the only person who can help look after them.

We would like to have a baby in another year, but by that time my parents will be even worse off, and I don't know if I can take care of them and a baby too. My husband and I have had numerous fights about this. I feel he can't understand what it is like for me, since he came from a broken home and was raised by a stepfather he hated. How can I make everyone happy here, least of all me?

It is not your job to make everyone happy. Your responsibility is to your marriage and children first. This does not mean that you turn your back on your parents. It does mean that you set limits to what you can do to help them, and consider possibilities of elder homecare or a retirement residence for assisted living.

Your husband may be at a loss to influence you in this direction because you discount his views. Because he experienced divorce in his childhood does not mean that his feelings and observations do not have merit. Nor does your having a biologically "intact" family experience in childhood mean that your family patterns are a picture of health. The difference is often that children from divorce may potentially benefit from the mistakes their parents made because the negative patterns of interaction resulted in divorce, while adults from intact families may not have ever identified toxic patterns of interaction because their parents remained married.

Certainly your husband's experience may give him greater opportunity to know what doesn't work. And your parents' interactions do appear to have a somewhat toxic effect on you. Consider that what he is saying to you may be in the best interests of the marriage. He has to be the voice for the emotional health of your family because you are not! You are too embroiled in your parents' marriage and life problems to focus on your own.

Examine the guilt and overresponsibility you are feeling towards your parents right now. You cannot change their marriage, their current isolation or their growing frailty. It may be that your parents situation is caused and exacerbated by their difficult relationship with one another. And you may be experiencing a pull to help them based on anxiety about the marriage, compounded by their growing dependency which further highlights their marital stress. Perhaps the more you do for them, the greater their increased helplessness.

Encourage their independence in realistic ways. This will be better for their mental health as well as your own. Separate your feelings about their relationship to one another from their growing frailty. Do what you can to help them with external services and environmental changes that can ameliorate the negativity between them, but let go of hearing about any distress your father has caused your mother. It is unhealthy for you to be an emotional dumping ground for their marriage.

Research government resources for ways to help your parents with daily living that will decrease your responsibility and open up your time with your husband and child. Or ask your husband to help you with this! County agencies usually have offices that specialize in aging that can help identify possibilities for assisted living. This could help relieve your mother's stress and increase her freedom. There are some very lovely retirement residences that include cleaning, cooking, social activities, transportation and outings which your mother might enjoy. She needs to make some friends!

It is not in your mother's or your best interest to continue to use you as her only social outlet. You cannot be her best friend. And she is nonsupportive of your marriage to boot! This undermines your relationship with your husband, putting yourself in the middle.

Take yourself out of the middle. Be aware that though this may be a familiar position for you, it is harmful for you to be used to buffer the stress between your parents. The down side of being an only child is that you have no other siblings to unite with to see your parents more objectively. "Only" children can sometimes be easily swept into a dysfunctional negotiating role in the parents' marriage. But it is not your job to make them happy together. Their marriage may be miserable, but you have a right to succeed where they have failed! It is not too late to change course and put your own life and family in focus.

Find a middle ground that includes your family's development rather than prohibits it. Is your husband ready for fatherhood? And what do you want? If your parents were not weighing so heavily upon you, would you want a child? Center yourself to focus on your needs and what you want. Let that as well as your husband's needs and wants influence your decisions. You and he should be making decisions about how to delegate resources together. He is your partner, not your parents.

Solve this problem together by bringing your nuclear family into the forefront. Find ways to address your parents needs, so that they recede into the background. Remember that your parents have not fared well with their own marriage. Do not allow dysfunctional patterns in their relationship to repeat themselves. You will not be able to "save" them, but perhaps you can change what is passed on to the next generation!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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