Life in the middle

I’m A Single Mom Caring For An Elderly Parent & It’s A Special Kind Of Hard

Someday, when my kids look back, I hope they will remember the love and presence of extended family along with the pain.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
The Sandwich Generation Issue

By all accounts, 2022 should have been a good year. The height of the pandemic was over and things were getting back to normal. I was starting a new teaching position that I was excited about. In August, I would celebrate my 10-year wedding anniversary. I felt hopeful. Things seemed to be going my way. Until they weren’t.

In October, my husband and I separated. In the blink of an eye, I became a single mom to our four children, ages 10, 8, 6, and 4, and a single dog/cat mom to our three dogs and two cats.

Instead of excitement about my new teaching position, I grew anxious as I struggled to find childcare. I was financially, mentally, and emotionally struggling. I couldn’t imagine one more thing going wrong. And then my 81-year-old dad had an accident.

It was the middle of the night in the detached in-law apartment where he lives, about 30 yards from my front door. But he wasn’t able to crawl over to his phone until the next morning. My first reaction when I found him was to call my ex-husband because he’d always helped me before, but this time I was on my own.

I couldn’t lift my dad off of the floor myself, and I didn’t know if anything was broken. I called 911 and he was rushed to the emergency room. My kids watched from the living room window as the paramedics wheeled him to the ambulance. I could see the scared looks on their little faces, so I tried to make mine look normal — happy even.

When I was a kid and something happened to one of my grandparents or great-aunts or uncles, the information was given to me and my sister in a diluted form. My mother and father acted as the buffer. Now I was the buffer.

I am my dad’s healthcare proxy and his power of attorney. He didn’t want to talk to the doctors or social workers unless I was there, so I spent a lot of time at the hospital. Becoming the person your parent looks to for advice feels kind of like you’re in the movie Freaky Friday.

Each morning, I dropped my kids off at school and went to the hospital. I sat in the corner while my dad slept, and I taught my classes online. I would stay until it was time to pick my kids up from school and then I’d leave, only to come back after dinner. Sometimes I would leave the kids with their father, if he was available, or a babysitter. I would come home exhausted only to find my son waiting up for me, crying, because he couldn’t go to sleep without me. Weary and close to tears myself, I’d carry him upstairs and lay with him in my bed until we fell asleep.

My dad was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a condition that had killed his own mother before she reached 50. He also had an aortic aneurysm, which we’d known about, that had grown from the size of a toddler’s fist to that of my 6-year-old’s. It was too risky to operate on it. Add that to the stroke he’d had nine years earlier, and everything about him suddenly seemed fragile and unpredictable.

This wasn’t the dad I knew. He’d taught me how to drive in a red 1996 Jeep Cherokee Sport, which we still have. He practiced basketball with me in our driveway, even though I was terrible at it. He taught me how to fish and how to cook. In the days after my separation, when my kids were with my ex, we would order Chinese food and I would fall asleep on the couch in his apartment so I didn’t have to be alone.

When you’re a mother of young children, there are Mommy and Me groups where you can find support, or at least a place where you can safely put your kid down on the floor for a few seconds of respite. When you’re caring for an aging parent, there are no such places.

I have a younger sister, but she and her husband live in California. She helps in the ways she can, like sending packages filled with groceries, toiletries, and other things our dad wants or needs. I appreciate all that she does, but it isn’t the same as having someone to sit with while you wait for CT scan results in the ER.

I wasn’t sure who to turn to, so I turned inward. I thought about the experiences in my life that had uniquely prepared me for the situation I was facing: my parents’ divorce, watching my grandparents’ health decline as my mom and aunt cared for them, the uncertainty of my newborn son’s 32-day-stay in the NICU hooked up to a ventilator, and the throbbing heartache of my own failed marriage and the deterioration of the family unit that had made me so proud.

As I was asked to write this piece, my dad fell again. This time, it was while my 5-year-old son was at his apartment. Thankfully, nothing serious came of it except a few bumps and bruises, but the stress and fear that it will happen again — and be worse next time — is omnipresent. But that isn’t all that’s there. In therapy, I have been working to find gratitude in everyday moments, and many of them involve my dad: watching him play army guys with my son, helping my sixth-grade daughter with her math homework, and cheering at my middle daughter’s softball games. He eats dinner at my house nearly every night and is there for every birthday, holiday, first day of school, and graduation.

Someday, when my kids look back on the year their parents got divorced, I hope they will remember the love and presence of extended family along with the pain. And maybe I will even look back on 2022 and remember that it taught me that I am stronger than I ever imagined. I am reminded of how patient my dad was when I was learning to drive, never flinching when I’d accidentally cut a corner too close and hit the curb, or slammed too forcefully on the brake. The journey we are on now isn’t smooth either, but at least we’re still on it together.

Jill Bodach is a former journalist who spent ten years covering the police beat for a daily newspaper in Connecticut. While she liked the excitement and busyness of the newsroom, she decided to try something new and went to graduate school where she received a MS in English and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For the past 16 years, Jill has taught college writing, literature and creative writing courses.