When I was twelve, my mother died of cancer. She had been ill for seven years. A beautiful redhead in her youth, she increasingly isolated as the disease ravaged her. Over time, I became her sole companion.
Now, as a child I could hardly be held responsible for looking after my adult mother. Nonetheless, I imagined that this was my duty. Her needs seemed to dwarf mine no matter what. As she became sicker and emotionally more demanding, my confusion grew.
I could theoretically say no to her and go play with my friends. I sometimes felt resentful about the sacrifices I made, but they seemed warranted by her loneliness and suffering, which were never far from my mind. They were just something I had to do to be a good daughter.
To what extent did taking care of myself entail caring for her? Where was the dividing line between us? The boundaries blurred and disappeared. When she died, I believed I had failed her just because I could not save her.
I felt profoundly inadequate, unable to succeed in my own right. Never mind that I was a child. Never mind that even today, more than half a century later, cancer remains a formidable adversary.
How can any of us take care of others while also providing for ourselves? What do we do when two sets of needs conflict? What if someone else’s seem more important than our own?
Although the dilemma affects some boys, this overriding sense of obligation remains the quintessential predicament of American mothers in the making—and perhaps of mothers everywhere.
Yet the underlying principle makes no sense. If I bankrupt myself financially, emotionally, and/or physically, what use am I to anyone else? Who will rescue the adult me?
My helping and healing powers depend on my own health and strength. It is up to me to safeguard these. I must be selfish in the sense that I must put myself first if I am going to be a resource for others.
The issue sounds simple, but a subtle, insidious problem complicates matters. To say yes to ourselves, we must sometimes say no to other people. Doing so often leaves us feeling guilty, as if we had done something wrong.
And yet everyone must set limits sometimes. We show respect for friends when we observe their limits, and they show that they care about us when they observe ours.
Such boundaries promote health and sound relationships. They keep us from behaving like impulsive savages. We must not only heed our personal limits and those of others but also teach our children about the importance of boundaries.
When we need to say no, children are a sticky wicket.
You probably feel totally responsible for your children’s well-being. In fact, however, once they are no longer babes in arms, you have little control over them. You provide as best you can, as you feel you must, given your childrearing principles. You teach mostly by example.
You must accept, however, that you cannot shield your offspring from mistakes—the ones you made or the ones that they will make and not you. You must also accept that their mistakes are not your fault.
Your power, always circumscribed once they are born, diminishes the older they get. And you still need to take care of yourself.
If you want to blame yourself for your children’s behavior, you must first rewind the tape, then change your actions, and finally pay it forward to demonstrate that the outcome is different. Of course you cannot do any such thing.
You can only strive to do your best. Your work product will inevitably be better at some times than at others.
It’s important to us women to please people. How can we conquer our guilt so that we can be caring, meet our own needs, and feel good about ourselves without constantly worrying about falling short?
When we believe we have done something that doesn’t reflect our values, we feel guilty. If we perpetually see ourselves as failures, we feel ashamed. The remedy lies—you guessed it—in our heads.
Here’s what you can do to feel better about yourself.
Know yourself. Identify your values. Be aware of your feelings. The object for us all should be to live true to our convictions from one day to the next and to know what we want and need for ourselves.
We all want to believe, looking back, that at any given moment we did the best we could, given the information then available to us.
Recognize your responsibility for yourself and that of others for themselves. None of us has control over anyone else. We must operate on the premise that all adults can and should assume responsibility for themselves.
If you find yourself caretaking another adult, beware. You are disrespecting, indeed insulting, that person by sending the message that he or she is incompetent.
Recognize the limits of your control. We have no control over other people or over most of what happens in the world.
Our aim should be to focus our energies and our attention on those things that we can control, particularly our own response to adversity, and to accept the rest.
Have faith in yourself and the universe. Believe in your ability to survive. Stay optimistic. Assume that, whatever happens, you will have the necessary resources to deal with it.
Model your values. If you have children, you are setting an example for them. Show them how to be strong in the world.
What they learn from you about how to have fun is less consequential than what you teach them about how to manage anger, fear, grief, loss, and pain. Show them how to survive and how to thrive. They are watching you.
Take pride in your achievements. After you are gone, at what moments would you want your children and grandchildren to think of you? Which of your accomplishments to date make you proud? What work remains for you to do in the time you have left?
Your life is your own personal work of sculpture. At the end of the day, you alone will see it in its totality and contemplate its meaning. What do you want it to stand for?