Being a Daughter, Being a Mother

My parents with their grandkids

As many of you have heard, my father is gravely ill at the moment. I don’t want to discuss the details of his illness because my father is a very private person and because it is not my place to do so. But I am compelled to write about the conflict I feel as I try to balance my responsibilities as a daughter and as a mother because it speaks to a situation that many people my age have found themselves in. And if you are a parent who has not yet felt this conflict, I am happy for you. But rest assured, it is coming.

My father has been hospitalized for several weeks now. I spent the past week with my husband and my children staying at my parents’ house in Washington DC. I came to DC to see my father in the hospital and to support my mother. My husband could not take the whole week off of work, but luckily, he was able to work at his firm’s DC office. Every day, all I wanted to do was to rush to the hospital and sit with my father. That meant that every day, I had to find someone to stay with my kids, who absolutely could not go to the hospital. We are very fortunate to have wonderful friends and extended family in DC and many of them stepped up to help with the kids. But still, it was stressful for me to spend the whole day apart from my kids and it was stressful for them to be away from home and out of their routine — to say nothing of the sadness and worry that was hanging over us all.

After almost a week away, it became clear that my father’s condition would not be improving quickly. We were facing weeks of more hospitalization and more uncertainly. In short, the time had come for us to go home. Although it gave me some small comfort to sit next to my father every day, he did not know that I was there. And while my presence had helped my mother for a time, she did not need the stress of four house guests any longer. But most importantly, my children needed to be back in their house, with their toys and their friends. The stress of the situation was beginning to wear on them.

So, reluctantly, when I left the hospital on my last day in DC I said goodbye to my father without my usual promise to return the next day. It broke my heart to leave him. While I sat in the hospital, I clung to the notion that I had some control over the situation. I could monitor my father’s temperature; pepper the doctors and nurses with questions. Now that I can’t see how he is doing, I am forced to rely on second and third-hand information. My mother does not keep anything from us and she relays information as soon as she gets it. But I still am frustrated by not being able to hear the doctor’s tone or see the nurse’s face or ask my mostly unanswerable questions.

Now that I am home, it is easier to distract myself by going about my daily routine. Without those daily trips to the hospital, I can almost pretend that everything is okay. But then I feel tremendous guilt for having abandoned my parents. And now that I can no longer see my father or touch him, the fact that I cannot even talk to him seems somehow more painful. But my children are much happier. Back with their friends and their toys, they quickly put their fear and bewilderment behind them. And that is as it should be. Children are narcissists by nature. Zuzu still seems to be carrying around a lot of disappointment and worry — not surprising given that she is old enough to have some understanding of the situation. But now that she is back home, she is much more her usual cheerful self than she was during that long week.

So, although I long to be at my father’s side and to share my mother’s burden, instead I am home taking care of my children.  On an intellectual level, I know that my presence at hospital served no purpose other than to make me feel better. And the “better” in this context is cold comfort at best. But it was not at all better for my children. My responsibilities as a mother have trumped my wishes as a daughter. As parents, we constantly put our children’s needs in front of our own. I am used to that concept. I have just never had to put my children’s needs in front of a need of my own that was so desperate.


  1. Carrie H. says

    As us Quakers say, I am holding you, your Dad, and your whole family in the Light.

    • Emily says

      Thanks Marisa. I know you are close to your parents like I am. We’re fortunate in that way.

  2. jenna says

    Emily, I am so moved by your words. Your father and your entire family are in my thoughts and prayers each and every day. I have known him for almost all of my nearly 50 years, and he is a wonderful man in every way. Kind, brilliant, funny, perceptive, warm…just like his daughter. I’m sure he knew you were there, and I’m also sure that he would want you to be home with the kids now. You are doing exactly the right thing, even though your heart is being pulled East. Sending you lots of love.

  3. Lisa says

    Such a good, honest post. Sometimes the ability to step away from our responsibilities as a mom sounds like what we need, but in the end it’s being a mom that gives us the most strength. Be sure to take care of yourself while you’re taking care of everyone else.

    • Emily says

      Thanks for reading Lisa, as you said you would! It’s true that being strong for our kids makes us stronger people.

  4. Robbie Vorhaus says

    Dear Emily,
    Your father is my mentor, my hero.
    Your blog is touching and needed. Thank you for taking your time to share w/ all of us who know that your dad is truly one of the good guys.
    love and light to you and your entire family,

    robbie vorhaus

    • Emily says

      Thanks Robbie. So many people have been touched by my dad and so many people have reached out to us during his illness. It really does make us so proud.

  5. Dana Gossett says

    David just forwarded this to us. I am so, so sorry. We are all thinking of you and your family at this difficult time.

  6. Amy says

    Emily, you are so eloquent in voicing what I feel almost every day. Even on the good ones. How can we possibly be there for our parents AND our kids? If your family is like mine, those kids are such a light in the world and I hope they bring warmth to your aching heart during this struggle. Sending you, your patents and your kids loving thoughts!

    • Emily says

      Amy, it was a true highlight to meet you, as brief as it was. I appreciate your words and support so much.

  7. Elena says

    Emily, Even though you had told me about this post, reading your words- feeling the emotions that you so vividly describe, makes me want to reach through the computer and hug you. Taking care of the needs of others and ourselves is such a tricky balance and you my lovely lovely friend, walk that line with grace and sensitivity and caring. Much love to your entire family.

  8. Jennie B says

    I am hearing similar stories more and more, and it is so hard to be torn in such a way. We are truly the sandwich generation. Sending healing thoughts to you and your family.

  9. Karen says

    Emily, I am so sorry you are having to go through this. I understand. My parents are getting older and are a source of worry for me as I live in Wisconsin and they are in SC Pennsylvania. When you look in the eyes of your children, know that your dad is fundamental for them being here. Bless you. I’m hoping for a miracle for your family.

    • Emily says

      Thank you Karen. Sadly, we lost my father earlier this week. He will live on through me and my children, but we miss him terribly.

  10. Jessica says

    Hi Emily,
    I remember you speaking so eloquently about your situation when we met at dinner in San Diego, and I was so impressed with your composure and your ability to verbalize all the directions in which you were being pulled. Please know that I am thinking of you and your family in this time of devastation.

    • Emily says

      Thank you, Jessica. It was such a pleasure to have met you. Our dinner remains a highlight in this dark time.

  11. Sandwiched says

    Thank you for this beautiful post. My condolences on your loss. It’s a tough spot to be in; my mom lived near me for over 3 years while we managed her poor chronic health. We just lost her in April. There were many times over the last few years that I had to weigh my mother’s needs against my children’s, and against my own. It’s a very tough tightrope to walk. My heart goes out to you and your family.

    • Emily says

      Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. My condolences on the loss ofnyour mother. These losses are truly devastating.

  12. Holly says

    Emily, I am so, so sorry for your loss and sorry that I am late to send my condolences. May you have the peace and knowledge that you were a terrific daughter. I remember the way you talked about him just last week, he knew he was loved. You are in my heart. xxxoooo