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.