Mother’s Day is around the corner, and I’m standing at the greeting card section in the grocery store.  There are two other masked daughters searching for just the right card six feet in front of me. This is never an easy moment for me, even when there’s no pandemic. And the precautions I must use to keep physically safe can’t protect my emotional safety. I cannot buy the card that says, “Thank you for always being there,” “Thank you for being the rock,” etc.  There’s never a card that reflects the complicated relationship I have with my mother.

As an elementary school child, I remember mom disheveled some days and others when she was neatly dressed, hair done and makeup applied. Some days she was playful and other days withdrawn. Teachers smiled kindly as if they knew something that I did not. Family members seemed to be frustrated and angry with her all the time.

After my parent’s divorce, which she insisted upon, her erratic behavior intensified. I remember asking myself questions like, “Will she remember to come pick me up after band practice?” “When I get home from school, will she be awake?” “Will she make dinner?” “Will she be raging angry?” “Will she be home?” “Has she lost her job again?’  “Who else will be in the house?” and the darkest question, “Will she be alive?” 

By the age of eleven, I became a caregiver to my mother.  Some kids may learn to do laundry or cook as preparation for adolescence or adulthood, but I was doing these activities out of necessity. Once I learned to drive, I regularly paid bills and grocery shopped with one of my grandmothers. When mom was having a good day or two, I would get hopeful that everything would be okay. 

Then it inevitably happened: she would finally show up to pick me up from a school event disheveled, talking about things that were not true and confusing. As a teenager, I was scared, ashamed and angry. I would complain to my grandmothers and aunts, who always wanted to smooth things over.  Unbeknownst to me, they were working diligently to support her in receiving treatment and getting herself well–taking her to appointments while I was in school, having me spend a night or two when she was hospitalized, paying for her treatment. Meanwhile, my father made attempts to secure custody, but this was the 1970s, and mothers were the default caregivers. All I wanted was a mom. Instead, I became the caregiver—and basically missed out on adolescence.

As a grown adult, mother, and clinical psychologist, I compassionately understand that my mother suffers from significant mental health conditions. Her behavior was not done out of cruelty, but because of poorly managed mental health conditions.  Still, I have emotional scars and memories that do not fade.

After college, graduate school, and marriage, I moved 1700 miles away to ensure that I was far enough away that she couldn’t manipulate me with fake emergencies. With the buffer of distance, I was able to maintain a relationship with her. I chose whether to answer the phone and decided when she would visit and for how long. This was how I protected myself and the family my husband and I were creating. 

As my mother aged, Alzheimer’s Disease began to ravage her mind. I cried for two weeks when the relocation professional on the other end of the phone said, “You must do the humane thing.” Those 1700 miles had allowed me to safely love her and protect myself from being sucked up into her chaotic, messy, delusional life. But I realized she needed my support, and the best resources I could find were near my home. In 2012, I moved my mother to live in an assisted living facility 3 miles away. Now, I was responsible again.  

Recently, WebMD conducted a survey of working women who are caregivers and found that they are the most stressed employees.  According to the Family Caregiving Alliance, 75 percent of  caregivers are female. Furthermore, an AARP Policy Institute study identified that the age of caregivers expands all the way to the Millennial generation, who like the rest of us are juggling care of their own young families and larger financial burdens. Researchers have identified that gender and proximity usually define who will be the caregiver of an aging parent. If you live less than 2 hours away from your aging parent and you are a woman, you are highly likely to be the caregiver.

That puts a lot of pressure on women, especially now. The American Psychological Association reports that caregivers experience higher levels of stress hormones and lower immune response, all of which negatively impacts their long-term health. Nearly 4 in 10 caregivers report that they suffered from a high level of stress.

Of course, more men are providing support to their elders, and with regard to spousal caregiving, there is an equal balance among the genders. The difference is that daughters are the automatic default for caregiving in our families. 

Every day, I am deeply grateful to all those who ensure my mother is comfortable and cared for. She is receiving the best health care of her life, and she is safe. In an odd way, the COVID 19 crisis has made things easier. It was always difficult for me to visit and spend time before the pandemic—I would navigate complicated feelings (even after years of therapy), shore myself up, wrestle with guilt and grief. The staff interpret my behavior as grieving my mother’s declining health, rather than grief for the mother I wished she could have been. Now I can’t visit even if I wanted to.

Instead, I will send a card.  One with the simplest sentiments, “Happy Mother’s Day.”