Though I always worked at a demanding job, I made sure to be a totally hands-on mother. I was involved in every aspect of my children’s lives, from school to their friendships and their every other need. Maybe because I never had that experience growing up or because I felt a little guilty for working so much, I went far beyond the call of duty.
So my three children were accustomed to coming to me with every little scrape, every challenging moment in school, every disappointment with their friends, and so on. I felt very good about how close we were and how much they depended on me to make everything OK. In those days, I was young and had the energy of ten people. Also, as they say: Small children, small problems; big children, big problems.
Well, some things never change. Though two of my children are actually grandparents, and though I am still working, everyone comes to me with every single problem. The married grandchildren behave the same way as my children. If there’s a problem, call Babbie. As the family is so much larger and it seems that the issues over the years have become very serious in some cases, everyone still feels the need to bring every worry, sadness, pain, you name it, right to me. They think I can still fix everything or at least take some of the worry off their shoulders so that I can carry it around instead of them.
Over the past several years, I have developed a number of health issues. By the way, it’s not like my children ever bother to ask me how I am feeling. They just assume that despite the fact that I couldn’t get out of bed one day, all is good. My doctor seems to think that maybe stress is contributing to my declining health after I suddenly broke down in tears in his office and started sharing with him some of the problems that are going on in my family and how I feel that ultimately everything lands on me. He seemed shocked that every generation seems so comfortable running to me with their problems (except, of course, for the few toddlers in the family now). His advice was: “Don’t answer the phone.”
These days, when my phone rings and I see it’s one of my children, I feel my heart start to race and I think, “Now what?” I’ve been so used to hearing about everyone’s problems that I expect the call will be from someone crying hysterically and needing me to somehow fix the problem. These days, I’m more and more incapable of doing that.
My children are not as strong as me. Certainly, they are nowhere as strong as I was when I was their age. My mother died young; I had no one to lean on and developed very strong shoulders. My children haven’t. But at my present age, I just don’t have the stamina anymore to deal with anything. At times, I feel like I just want to run away from everyone and be left alone.
I am very worried about my own health, but, honestly, I am equally worried about the well-being of my children and grandchildren. They just seem so fragile to me. They aren’t able to cope well with disasters or things that they think are disasters but really aren’t. So despite the fact that I want to tell them all to call me only with pleasant news, I’m afraid that if I cut them off in terms of problem-solving, they will fall apart.
I don’t know how much longer I can go on this way. My constant anxiety is through the roof. I wonder: Who should I save—myself or the rest of the family?
I’m not surprised to hear that you’re feeling so anxious and, as a result, suffering from various physical ailments. Constant stress will do that to a person. We can only handle so much and then, eventually, the body finds a way of telling us that changes need to be made, that we can’t keep on living a lifestyle that sucks so much out of our very being.
I’m sure you’re not interested in hearing all about how you came to be in this predicament. It’s clear to you and me both. Like so many other very well-intentioned parents, in your effort to be the very best mother in the world, you managed to create children who never figured out how to stand entirely on their own two feet and handle their lives independently, the way that you learned at a young age. How often our good intentions go awry!
And to make matters worse, you’ve continued this dynamic right through to your grandchildren. And who knows? Given the chance, maybe your great-grandchildren would also learn to dump on you every worry, every sadness, and every hopelessness, as the previous generations have done.
So who do you save? We all know that when you get on an airplane, the flight attendant announces that in case of an emergency, you must first put your oxygen mask on your own face before helping your children with theirs. Because if you’re not safe, your ability to help them is non-existent. Maybe that should serve as a good example for how you should be structuring your own life presently. If you’re not staying healthy and strong, you will all be in big trouble!
I don’t know if you’ve shared with your children what is going on with your own health issues, but I think that would be a good beginning. I’m guessing you probably don’t want to worry them, and maybe you also dread the possibility that upon hearing what you are dealing with, their responses would be less than compassionate. Nevertheless, if you decide to start this necessary new chapter of your life, where you and your needs are finally going to be bumped up and those of the rest of the family will subsequently take a one-down position, you will find yourself feeling uncomfortable and worried. But that is the price of admission if you want to save yourself.
Very possibly, you are not giving your family enough credit. Under the right circumstances, they all, or maybe at least some of them, will hopefully rise to the occasion and finally grow up. When it comes to intergenerational relationships, there comes a time when the torch must be handed over to the next generation. Ready or not, here it comes! But you also have to be ready to let go. Let go of your control. Let go of your fears. Let go of your present beliefs. Let it all go!
Your body and your gut are both trying to tell you what to do. Now it’s time for you to turn over a new leaf and have faith that you’ll all come out the better for it.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295. Read more of Esther Mann’s articles at 5TJT.com.