I never expected to be initiated into the “sandwich generation” of care-giving at age 30, but my daughter’s birth two years ago coincided with a cascade of medical crises for my family. As I hurtled into motherhood, the boundaries of being an adult child shifted, too. My parents needed more, and I had a tiny newborn who needed — and deserved — everything.
I took one of those Mommy and Me classes, where bleary-eyed new mothers commiserate over feeding woes and sleep deprivation, and nod encouragingly to each other over the little victories: getting ourselves out the door, nursing in public for the first time and cooking meals.
I smiled at the right times and nodded at similar hurdles, but my mother had just had two unexplained brain hemorrhages and several of my father’s existing chronic diseases were flaring, so my mind also swirled with the logistics of neuro-ICU follow up appointments, test results, and rehabilitation.
During the five-year journey my husband and I had to finally become parents, I had a lot of time to lecture my future self. Slowly, “Don’t take any of it for granted” evolved from an admonition to a mantra that floated above the everyday din of feeding, washing, cooking, cleaning, working and mothering. I suppose it could have set up impossible expectations: If you struggled to get here, you aren’t allowed to complain that every moment isn’t amazing.
But instead, it was liberating. It allowed me to give myself permission to block out the sadness, grief and frustration, to cling tenaciously to every moment of time I was able to spend with my infant daughter. I remember so vividly those spring afternoons when she would rather sleep in my arms than in her crib. Sunlight would inch in through her shades and I’d just hold her and rock, knowing even as I lived it that this time with her was too fleeting.
Watching so much slip away from my parents made my time with my daughter that much more sacrosanct. It also made nurturing her relationship with her grandparents that much more important. It wasn’t always smooth, this process of figuring out where my responsibilities as a mother, wife and daughter lay. There was a lot of guilt over what I could not fix — what we could not fix.
Two years later, I have an inquisitive toddler with a grandfather who is facing a new medical crisis: in end stage renal failure, my father is now waiting to receive a kidney from a living donor. As we’ve watched him deteriorate, the equilibrium I’d so painstakingly created re-calibrated yet again. Now, the time I so tenaciously guard isn’t mine, it is theirs.
Friday nights at my parents’ house have become our standing date, and I rarely respond to my daughter’s spontaneous afterschool requests to see her grandparents with anything other than “Yes.” We make it home past her bedtime, she doesn’t always get her nap, and often it means the laundry, bills, and my work get squeezed in late at night or before dawn. But will I ever regret watching her sit on her grandfather’s lap reading books, or watching her draw pictures with her grandmother? Of course not.
In those blurry newborn days of adjusting to new identities, regret management was the whisper that followed me as I floated from child to parent, from spouse to employer and back again. Now, it is even more of a conscious, deliberate process.
In this intense waiting period of hope and anxiety, optimism and doubt, it is once again crucial to draw a tight circle around my family. The past two years have been an exercise in stumbling gracefully, while being pulled in so many different directions. What I never could have told myself back before I was a mother and a daughter at the same time, what I never would have believed until I lived its simplicity, is that in extraordinary times, ordinary moments are the ones that count, the ones we won’t regret.
Right now, I don’t feel pulled between two worlds — I feel like I am squarely in the middle of something much bigger.