Duty of Care

As children of the same parents we share a bond. A difficult, messy bond.  It begins in childhood when we vie for parental attention and affection and approval and it can become more difficult when we become adults. Because at some point, we stop looking at these people as mommy and daddy, and we start looking at them as our mother and father – as people to whom we owe some duty of care.

I don’t know when that happened for me. When my father got sick, I guess. And then when he was lying in a coma.  I felt some duty of care then, to wonder aloud why we were keeping a man in a coma on dialysis when his body could no longer sustain itself.  Luckily, everyone in the room agreed.  And so my duty-of-care-eye fell upon my mother.  The widow. The broken, aging woman who, after 50 years, was suddenly going to be cooking meals for one, and forever climbing into a bed that was only ever going to be warm on one side again.

Happily, she isn’t broken.  She has resumed her life.  But, my eye, when it falls upon her, is no longer carefree.  My eye is now always scanning, looking for signs that she is – or is not – alright. Wondering what I can do.  What I should do.

My mother is a very private woman.  My daughters tease me and say I’m just like her.  And, where privacy is concerned, they’re right.

A couple of years ago, something came up with my health – and I didn’t tell my girls about it – because I don’t like to talk about those things. When they eventually found out, they were upset – concerned about my health, for sure, but also upset with me for not having told them.  I wrestled with that for a long time – and finally came down on the side of their right to know.  My thinking?  Eventually, if I’m lucky, I will be old – old enough that they might have to help me make decisions – and – old enough that they might have to make decisions for me.  So, it’s probably best that they know – well, everything they might ever need to know.  So, now I “check-in” as it were, when there’s something they might eventually need to know about my wellbeing.

My daughters and I talk – and have talked for years – about our values around life and death – about what each of us wants – heroic measures or no heroic measures – final send-offs – and all that.  I’m confident they will respect my wishes, but I’m also aware we can’t possibly have talked about everything that might come up as I age.

I know this because something recently came up with my own mother.  Something I couldn’t have anticipated – nothing life threatening – but something that is a very great concern.  To me.  The problem is – it’s not a great concern to my younger sister.

It has caused a rift between us – because, not only does she not share my concern,  she doesn’t agree with how I approached “the problem.”  No, that’s wrong.  She so fundamentally disagrees with how I approached “the problem” that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.

So where am I with this?

Well, my mom is a cogent and intelligent woman, very capable of making her own decisions.  She doesn’t need me to step in and tell her what to do.  But, as her daughter, I do feel it’s my responsibility to let her know when I’m worried about something. I did that. We have, as she put it, “agreed to disagree.” We agree that it’s her life and she can do what she wants; we disagree about the issue that concerns me. But, I’ll stay out of it unless and until she asks for my help. I’ve done my filial duty.  I’ve fulfilled my duty of care.  We had a warm hug the last time I saw her.

But, where my sister is concerned, it’s not so clear. I refuse to have my sibling be the arbiter of my relationship with my mother. I know this can be a very slippery slope. I know there are times when one sibling has to step in to protect a parent from another sibling.  Say, if one sibling were being abusive.  If one sibling were doing something that endangered the parent’s health.

But that’s not the case here.  And I’m not sure I know how to feel about it.  Is my sister simply fulfilling her duty of care, holding me at bay, to protect our mother?  Is she failing to respect our mother’s ability to be the arbiter of her own relationship with me?  Or is my sister just a person who has learned something about another person – who just happens to be a sibling – something that she just cannot get past – and so chosen to break away?

I hope my own children are better friends than this.  That they will be able to share their concern about me without it devolving into proprietary wrangling. I never thought I’d say this, but I hope they talk about me a lot – now – while there’s basically nothing to be worried about – so they know who the other one is – and what they can expect from each other – when the time comes that one of them does feel she has to exercise the duty of care.

Published in: on September 26, 2011 at 10:57 am  Comments (2)  
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