Between my husband and I, we have three different versions of walking a path with our elders.
In my family, with my mother long deceased, I care for my father with some help from one brother and with two other siblings who want nothing to do with him. I have a stepfather who remarried and we struggle to stay in contact, so I worry about him. In my husband’s family, he is an only child to his mother and has two stepsiblings who have faded from the picture after their father died. My husband also has a his half-sister and they work well together to support and advocate for my husband’s father and stepmother.
No doubt, there are many other versions of adult child of divorce roles but these three examples give a peek into the future of what our stepfamilies will be like as we age up.
Consider this . . . most adult children of divorce have TWO sets of parents. They might then marry another adult child of divorce, who also has TWO sets of parents, and immediately there are FOUR sets of parents to care for within a family. This isn’t often the thought on your mind when you walk down the aisle. Typically, we’re distracted with worrying whether the children will like us or whether one of the kids will make a scene at the reception because he or she is angry that their father is getting married.
My father has lived with my husband and I for three months now after his discharge from stroke rehabilitation. As he stabilized enough to move to a more independent living situation, my father-in-law suffered a heart attack and an emergency double-bypass. Then, as my father-in-law went home with my stepmother-in-law to recover, my mother-in-law had a relapse of a chronic pain condition and needs more support.
I am grateful for each one of these elders in my life and this is not a whine. I have zero complaints about putting things down and helping them have a better quality of life. It would certainly be easier if they all lived in my town, but we are beginning to explore options for long-distance contacts. They each have an iPad and we have recently discovered Cozi, an online calendar management system.
If two and three and four sets of parents is the norm in the typical stepfamily, what kind of assistance will we adult children need in order to support and advocate for our parents? I know first-hand the feeling of stress and distress when a parent struggles and suffers. Double the number of parents, double the stress. Or, quadruple the parents, and there you go. You never know if you’ll be the one holding the caregiver bag or the one high-tailing it because you just discovered you’ve got no stomach for it.
As far as I can see, the elder end of the spectrum contains fundamental issues we might never have considered in the early years of our stepfamilies. In the early years of many a stepfamily, the primary stressor is typically the relationship with the ex-spouse. As the kids become teens and the elders get . . . well, older or elder, or whatever you want to call the process, the primary issue becomes exponentially complicated.
Based on my experience with my father, it is a full-time job to attend to closing a life and rebuilding another one. As a power-of-attorney, I am on-call. Multiply by two more for my husband and we’ve got our life focus for the next many years. Maybe you don’t plan to participate in the care of your elders, but my husband and I understand this is a part of our lives. It just is.
We’ve joked that we need our own adult care home, which we could do in our state. We would get screened by the federal government and fingerprinted and separated from those who’ve committed crimes. After that, we’d be able to care for our own elders in our own home. We have enough elders to easily fill an official foster home, but our current home wouldn’t fit them all and they don’t get along. But, if they did, we could save a great deal on resources, especially time, energy, and the emotional cost of running from home to home.
Years ago, one of my stepkids had a school assignment to draw a dream house and label the rooms in Spanish. The resulting dream home had a room for all the siblings and each parent, on different floors. There was recognition of the parents not being married and evidence of the deep yearning to have everyone under one roof.
Today, I wish I could build that house. I know if I were in the situation I’m imagining could solve so many problems, I likely wouldn’t want to live with my husband’s ex, but I also see what the future holds for our kids when they grow older and it’s our turn to be the elders. They will be pulled emotionally in two, three, or four different directions.
This world of ours is definitely complicated. Not just because we are living longer, but because we haven’t figured out how to live in community. Truly honest, “I-wish-you-well,” community. If we did, well, my stepkid’s dream house wouldn’t be so far-fetched.
We can take on this walking-the-path with our elders as a burden, or we can release all the expectations that set us up for thinking being around old people is a traumatic experience. Sure, I get frustrated with my dad. As he gets better and thinks he’s independent, he wants to have more say. The problem is, he isn’t independent and needs help, always. There’s a complication in that, for sure.
Most of the time, I’m the one who’s gaining. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of my family, a respect for what my dad has been through in life, and clarity about what it means to show up for someone even when you don’t like what is going on.
There are so many things we have yet to sort out about being in a stepfamily in our culture today, no wonder it’s easier to play the blame-the-stepmother (or father, or ??, fill in the blank) game.
I’m learning that despite how traumatic the early stepfamily years seem, they were just the beginning of the story.