“I’ll do it myself!”
That seems to be the favorite phrase of my five year old these days – from dressing herself to making grilled cheese. Of course, some activities I let her take charge of. The grilled cheese, not so much.
I applaud her independence though, and try not to get hysterical when she scoots far away from me on the sidewalk or wades into a crowd of people. Really, I’m thrilled that she’s so self-confident and undaunted.
She comes by her independent streak honestly. After all, I was raised in the ‘70’s women-can-do-it all culture. Both my parents worked. They sent me to a Quaker school, which celebrates equality and the value of every individual.
Even my father commented on it when my daughter, Isabelle, was just learning to crawl. We were at my sister’s house and I had carefully spread a blanket on her living room floor for Isabelle, but she kept crawling off into more dangerous territory. With a sigh, I said, as I chased her away from the electric cord one more time, “She’s so independent!” My Dad looked at me and said, “Like mother, like daughter.”
Those little memories of grandpa and granddaughter are especially precious to me now that he’s been ravaged by dementia. He is infantilized. This once vital, gregarious, opinionated man can’t do anything for himself now. I’ve cut his food, wiped his face, even cleaned up his urine. And it breaks my heart.
When I announced to my dad – who, at the time, was still relatively healthy – that I was pregnant (I was 40, a network news producer, single and not dating anyone), he said, “I didn’t see that coming!” What did he expect? I was raised to do everything for myself, on my own.
But the experience of raising a young child and watching a parent disappear before your eyes has taught me a surprising lesson: how to ask for help.
Right after Isabelle was born, I went to a flurry of new moms groups. And through the wonderful women I met there, I have built a community of families and friends who are all tackling the issues of teething, tantrums, preschool, now kindergarten all together, all at the same time. Our regular Friday afternoon playgroup that started when Isabelle was about 4 months old has changed shape and size through the years but is still going and still a reservoir of love and support – as are all the moms who’ve passed through it.
To deal with my father’s dementia has been just as daunting and infinitely sad. I have lost count of the number of social workers, lawyers, and health aides I’ve cried to over the phone. But the thing is, they’ve all helped me in one way or another. I’ve especially found comfort in a support group for adult children of dementia patients. Being in a room with people you know will help you pick up the pieces when you fall apart is reassuring in the moment. It also gives me the strength to tackle the next challenge that comes along, like helping my Mom find a nursing home – and now, finally, seeking hospice care for my Dad.
What I’ve come to realize is not that I can’t “do it all” on my own. I can. But I know now that doing it on your own doesn’t mean being isolated and cut-off from the world around you. It means connecting yourself to a world that is rich in compassion and support from friends (and even compassionate strangers) who are willing to help.
The trick is to know when you can tackle something single-handedly and when, like the grilled cheese, it is too hot to handle without a little help.