It happens imperceptibly but in retrospect there appears a clear line demarcating the past from the present. It becomes progressively more difficult to imagine then that a time, very different from this, once existed. I am referring to the process by which children become their parents’ guardians.
For me it started during my young adult years as I began to come into my own as a medical student. My parents, well-educated and world-traveled, rarely sought my opinion on family matters, but with the typical self-assurance of youth, I offered it anyway. Occasionally, I was surprised to find them listening and put it down to a coincidental merging of thoughts. My parents were still very much in charge.
Then, in a quick series of incidents, the balance changed. My parents began to fall ill. Nothing more serious than the telltale signs of a constitution now over half-a-century worn. Arthritis, mostly a nuisance, but sometimes disabling enough to not be able to pick up the newspaper; infections, mostly viral, but lingering for that extra week that made my suspicious medical mind uneasy; gastritis, acute vertigo; then, a hole in the heart, completely benign; an unproven scare of pneumonia; a violent rash. They emerged from each event unscathed but what they retained in physical strength they began to lose in emotional hold. Hold seems too strong a word, implying that at times, they lost it. To the contrary, they remain strong, resilient individuals, but during times of stress, I now sense a somewhat faltering confidence beneath the veneer of normality. Only at the edges perhaps, but the vulnerability is certainly there.
Last year, when my mother fell seriously ill, the line was clearly drawn. Within minutes, I took charge, sought other doctors, and cajoled nurses while scouring the Internet. I slept at her bedside and helped her suddenly defeated body cope with daily activities. Embarrassed to tell the nurse she couldn’t shower herself, my mother sat dismayed that I had to wash her. “It seems like yesterday when I was bathing you,” she weakly remarked. I did not know it then but my metamorphosis to guardian had occurred.
In the last year, I have urged them on to medical reviews and holidays, and assisted them in their retirement plans. They have, of course, been fully and willingly involved in all these decisions, but I sense that my counsel has become more important with the passage of time. I have become my parents’ strongest advocate.
When I look around, wondering if my case is unusual, I see a fair number of my 30-something friends entering similar roles vis-à-vis their baby-boomer parents. We reschedule lunches due to parents’ medical appointments, increasingly not for a cold but weightier matters; we reorganize work to meet sudden crises; and we set aside time, unlike some years ago, to simply spend it with our parents at home. My husband’s still-working parents live thousands of miles away, but it is him they call in their moments of need. He spends long periods on the phone with them, increasingly their counselor. The next day, the balance may appear restored between parents and child but we subconsciously recognize that it is irrevocably inching towards the child.
It is a gratifying feeling actually, to be finally in a place to meaningfully help and counsel one’s parents. After all, doesn’t this embody the pinnacle of good parenting? But no matter what, amid the reassurances I give myself, I sometimes cannot escape from a transient sense of discomfort at the role-reversal that has caught me unawares. My parents and those of my contemporaries are not very old. They continue to lead productive, useful lives. They are often comfortable enough to not live at the whim of their children’s decisions. Yet, they are more fragile than they seemed a decade ago.
With the reversal of roles, for the parents comes the issue of an increased emotional reliance on their children, occasionally at the cost of their own pride. For the children there is the gradual letting go of the final vestiges of childhood and easing into a new role that may not come naturally, and indeed may feel distinctly awkward.
Suddenly, the ruminations of adolescence seem tinged with erroneous expectations. The concept of one’s parents growing old then seemed synonymous with dentures and debility and something that happened to others. When I look at my parents, these imaginings are still foreign. But there is no doubt that although far from frail, they are needier of my support than before. These days, I am more likely to hear a tired “You tell us what is best” than a “What do you think?” We seem to have entered a gray zone in which we are experimenting with new roles. The child becomes the more confident advisor, the parent the pliant listener.
On most days, I cherish my evolving role as a sign of the trust that my parents invest in me. Other days, the responsibility seems vast and premature. But every day, I realize that what we are all passing through is the circle of life. There is no instruction book on how to do it perfectly.
Ranjana Srivastava is a doctor based in Melbourne, Australia.