‘Motherhood: All love begins and ends there’

I just saw a friend at the dog park whose mother died about two weeks ago. I had seen the news on Facebook. Instinctively I greeted her with a warm, wordless hug, the one that says, “I’ve been there. I understand.” The greeting that has become all too common among women in later middle age.

Like my mother — who died on September 24, 2015 — this woman’s mom had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. We commiserated over the reality that our mothers had not been themselves for years. “I have to go back to 2011 or even 2010 to remember when Mom was really Mom,” I told her.

And for a moment it was back, the wistful sadness I have held at bay for 13 months. As I looked at Jill’s tight smile and moist eyes, as I listened to her describe crawling into bed with her dying mother — allowing her mother one last chance to be a mom — I felt my stomach drop and my throat catch. I wanted to see my mother one last time.

Is this grief? I can’t tell you. I don’t know how to grieve. All I have done since she died is to keep busy, keep moving forward.

“Grief can be exhausting or a relief,” says a handout from the hospice whose nurses cared for my mother in her final days. A bereavement coordinator sent a large refrigerator magnet that I stuck in a pile of papers. It reminds me, now 13 months later, to:

  • Take some walks: Check. I walk to work.
  • Stick to a routine: Check. I’m a creature of habit.
  • Create soothing bedtime rituals: Check. I go to sleep at night listening to music or a podcast.
  • Do some activities you enjoy: Check. I’ve been practicing yoga more often since Mom died, and my husband and I rescued a wildly affectionate puppy at the Animal Humane Society 10 days after her funeral.
  • Expect a wide range of emotions. OK, but what if I can’t find them?

I have dreamed once about my mother in the year-plus since she died; she was old and gaunt, and she had cancer. Maybe my guilt was speaking to me. I was relieved — and shocked, and sad, and scared — when she was diagnosed with blood cancer a mere four weeks before she died. For her, it was a release from the indignity of her decline. For me, it was the end of having to watch it.

My younger son, Nate, recently asked for the code to my iPhone. I told him it was the date of Mom’s death. He paused and turned to look at me. Nate is a truth teller, and I cherish our feisty and fearless conversations. “Do you think you would cope with this better if the code was her birthday instead?” he asked.

Good question, though I never did respond. First, I have to think about what mourning means.

mom-scattering

One year after our mother died on a windy autumn night, my brother posted a photo on Facebook of himself and Mom. They look young, happy and vigorously alive. “We need happy memories today,” I responded. But in truth, I cannot access them.

My memories of Mom are either grim or morbidly amusing, like this anecdote I jotted down in August 2012, six months after we learned she had Alzheimer’s: My brother consulted a colleague whose mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s. The woman told my brother that obsessions are common at this early stage. We should be grateful that our mother is obsessing about her checkbook, she said — even though it drives us crazy. Her relative became obsessed with constipation, and talked people into giving her laxatives and prunes daily. “I laughed, too,” my brother said as I tried to choke back my guffaws. “But my colleague’s father-in-law had to clean up the bathroom every day.”

My friend Janey, who was like a daughter to my mom, recounted the details of caring for a frail, 91-year-old parent only weeks before her own mother died. I was reminded of the daily schedule, the frequent phone calls, the sense of helplessness, the constant worry.

Now, all I have left of my mother is photos and the purposeful distribution of her possessions. “It’s so unreal,” I wrote a former colleague whose mother died recently. “The person who has loved you unconditionally, who’s known you literally all your life, who was your greatest cheerleader and supporter — suddenly she’s gone!”

I sift through notes, the abstract musings that I can’t seem to stitch into a cohesive whole. None of them are dated, which accurately reflects the confusion and unreality of the three and a half years when Mom gradually slipped away and then suddenly, traumatically left us, gasping for air, bone thin and incoherent in a morphine haze.

Here is where I can start to pinpoint my version of the stages of grief:

  • Reflection: “As my mother goes blank behind the eyes — as the light of her intellect dims — I am thinking about my role as a caregiver and about how it didn’t end when my children were grown. I never dreamed that I would have to care for her.”
  • Resentment: “My aunt died in her sleep in June, with no apparent warning. Hard as I know that was for my three cousins, I envy the simplicity, the lack of ambiguity. When will this be over?”
  • Resignation: “In all the years of dealing with my mother’s weaknesses and neediness, I’ve never thought about how much I needed her.”
  • Regret: “I’d like to do it all over again, without the whirlwind and the fear. I’d like to be more present for her dying.”

I didn’t want to lose my mother, but it was time for her to die. I still wrestle with that potent mixture of regret and sheer relief.

“It’s a complicated grief,” says the minister who performed Mom’s funeral service last October, “because dementia is an incremental death. She was both here and gone. You experienced her physical presence but her psychological absence. There’s no possibility of closure or resolution.”

My companion and my confidante, my caregiver and then my charge, my mother was present for every significant moment in my life. I have to live with the reality that I was often at my worst with her.

Maybe, in the end, that is where grief leads us, toward perspective and acceptance, seeing our loved ones and ourselves as perfectly human, imperfect people. “Yes, Mother,” wrote Alice Walker. “I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.”

Living the daily grind of the working poor

Two years ago, over my husband’s objections, we became a one-vehicle household when I sold my car.

It was a financial decision, in part. I had recently downsized out of management and was earning significantly less. But it was also a lifestyle choice. After years of long-distance commuting, I re-established our household in a bus- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where I can walk to work.

Choice is the operative word in that scenario. When I observe that I’m among the few obviously professional workers — and Caucasians — on inner-city buses or trains, I don’t often acknowledge that for me this is a choice. Even the pay cut, though a blow to both my pocketbook and my ego, was made possible through income from rental properties that my family owns.

For the working poor, however, a reliance on sometimes unreliable mass transit — as well as food insecurity, substandard housing, or lack of affordable child care and health care — means the opposite of choice. “It is about economics,” says Gennae Falconer, director of community engagement at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.Cropped_Gennae

“I have a full-time job,” she explains. “I have parents who could bail me out. Without harm to them, they could support me. These families have grandparents who can’t watch the kids because they are working. It’s inter-generational poverty.”

An exercise in living poor

I recently had the opportunity through Leadership Saint Paul to be part of a workshop that Falconer runs called “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty.” Although the exercise has the feel of a board game, there is nothing enjoyable about it at all.

Your challenge is to make it through a month in the city on a very limited budget, the instructions read. You will need to find housing, daycare, transportation and health insurance. In addition, you will need to pay for household expenses, food, clothing and entertainment.

My team’s choices got more difficult as we inched closer and closer to spending down the $3,400 per month that “Ted” and “Alice,” our working-poor parents, brought home. We started with housing, which we deemed the highest need for this five-person family.

Affordable housing means you are spending less than 30% on housing costs. In 2015, over 37% of Hennepin County residents paid more than 30% of their income for housing.

Given choices that included an affordable “rundown quad-plex” on a busy street where “loud fights and crime are common” and “a spacious duplex” close to a park and bus lines that cost $280 a month more than we were supposed to spend on housing, we opted for the three-bedroom duplex. Our rationale: free entertainment in the park.

We chose not to give this family a car, which meant we had to find daycare for the 2- and the 4-year-old on a bus line or close to home. Our decisions were starting to involve compromise:

  • The most affordable, high-quality child-care option, with a curriculum that focuses on healthful eating and self-esteem, looked ideal — but was a 40-minute commute by bus.
  • The other affordable option had a “frazzled and forgetful” owner who also cares for her aging mother. Plus, a child was injured there recently in the home’s unfinished basement.
  • The pricier option had a “sparse” supply of toys and limited activities, and it cost $160 a month more (remember, we already had overspent on housing, and we hadn’t yet factored in clothing and food).

“As you go into the exercise, you start to physically feel some of the stress,” Falconer says. “Sometimes, the only financial choice is to have the neighbor who smokes all day watch the kids, even though she lets them watch too much TV. As a society, we vilify the parents who will do that. But this is the best choice available.”

In the end, our family had spent $750 more than its monthly budget. The choices we made — to buy health insurance for the children, to enroll the mother in her 401(k) plan at work, to buy a share in the neighborhood community garden — reflected the circumstances in which we all were raised.

“Early on, there’s often not a lot of discussion about these choices,” says Falconer. “Participants are working on what is culturally ingrained: ‘This is what you do. This is how people live.’”

How could we deny “Alice,” the mom, the chance to attend her father’s funeral in Chicago? (None of us on the team works in an hourly-wage job where such a choice would entail lost wages.) How could we keep Valerie, the eldest child, from playing a sport or taking a field trip at school? (None of us had been denied those opportunities.)

Days later, Falconer and I discussed how she has seen the exercise affect participants.

This exercise was billed to our group as a “poverty simulation.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

“We try not to call it a poverty simulation, because that’s not fair to those who experience real poverty. We call it by its full name — Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty — and we define it as a simulation exercise to experience what life is like for the working poor.

“The exercise is specific to that group of people. They don’t make enough to cover living expenses, but they earn too much to qualify for state and federal aid.”

Who is your audience?

“We’re largely working with people who come from a privileged background and may not understand the complexities. They may believe that poverty is a choice driven by the person experiencing it. We’re hoping to show people that poverty is driven by economics.

“That’s why we call these poverty and privilege trainings. In our experience of working with white, middle- to upper-middle-class people — and I am one of them — we see that people tend to feel either guilty or defensive. And that doesn’t get us anywhere. We can’t sit in that space.

“If people act out of guilt, they give money. That’s fine, but it’s not working toward justice. If you act out of defensiveness, you become fearful and want to hold on to what you have.”

I’m on a committee at work that is examining how to move from employee volunteerism to true engagement with the community. How do you move people from throwing money at the problem to changing the system that enables poverty?

“People gravitate toward service and acts of charity because it’s on their terms. You get to decide how you do it, and it’s easier to do. Yes, you did something good: You painted a house; you stocked a food shelf.

“But if you’re doing the work of justice, it is going to take some personal sacrifice. You may make less money, because if we’re going to pay everyone an equitable wage, then the person who is white or male won’t automatically make more money. The sacrifice will come from those who have the most.

“That’s hard, and it creates fear. People think, ‘I’m going to be without.’ We live with such a notion of scarcity: ‘If we pay people more, I will have less.’ But we have enough in this country. We just don’t allocate it right. We don’t share enough.

“There has to be give and take among all community members to bring everybody up. Paul Wellstone said: We all do better when we all do better. Goodness begets other goodness.”

Although my team wanted to do well by this family, we also concluded that with low-skilled jobs and no apparent education, the parents should never have had children — or at least had fewer children. There’s another judgment against the working poor.

“You see that as the exercise progresses. Ted smokes, and for $75 he can keep smoking that month, or for $175 he can get the cessation gum. People assume you can just quit. But less than 1 percent of people who quit smoking cold turkey are successful within the year.

“There’s a mental health factor for the working poor. Smoking or eating junk food gives you a release. They don’t have time to sit in a therapist’s office for an hour. Again, poverty is about dollars and economics. It’s not just choices people make.”

It seems that people have grown both more rich and more poor since I was a kid. My family had one television and one car until I was 10 years old. Our house had no air conditioning; my mom hung laundry outside to dry. And my father was an attorney. We considered ourselves middle class.

“And we saw the privileges of the middle class as our right! I grew up in St. Cloud. I knew people at my school who were poor. You heard rumors. You could tell by the way they dressed. But all of those people had houses, had food, had a way to get to school. That’s not the way things are anymore.

“When homeless shelters came about in the 1980s, they were supposed to be a temporary fix. Federal poverty guidelines determine whether a person or a family is eligible for benefits, but those benefits were meant to be an emergency stopgap. Because the disparity between the rich and the poor keeps growing, it takes an enormous amount of money to raise yourself into a higher class. You remain dependent on the system.”

What are the next steps, for those of us who participated in this exercise?

“Our Urban Immersion Service Retreats focus on education, advocacy and service. Those programs help all of us understand that people who want to help — to be part of equity and change — can’t just ‘jump to justice’ without the underlying background. We have to move people along that continuum.”

To learn more, or to lease the “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty” kit, contact Gennae Falconer at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches: 612-276-1564 or gfalconer@gmcc.org.

Leading with my left: an exercise in humility

Wisdom can come from unlikely places. The older I get, the more I recognize that as a piece of wisdom in and of itself.

Lately my learnings have come from a recurring shoulder injury that has me working to correct a weakness throughout the left side of my body. When I neglect my physical therapy exercises or allow ego to overtake common sense in my workouts, then the injury reasserts itself.

The discomfort has inspired me to break the habit of physically leading with — or favoring — my right side.

Quickly, without thinking, clasp your hands. If you are right handed, as I am, your right hand will fold over your left, with the right thumb on top. If you’re left handed, most likely the opposite will be true.

Back in my days as a fitness instructor, I would talk with my students about our tendency to lead with our dominant side whenever we are walking, weight lifting or simply crossing our arms or legs. That practice builds strength in one side of our bodies — and perpetuates weakness in the other.

Like any unconscious or unhealthy habit, favoring my right side has caught up with me in middle age. And so, as I work to reverse the practice, I’ve been pondering which habits of thinking — assumptions, judgments and beliefs — are similarly automatic.

Leading with my left

Regrets are all too common at this stage of middle age — the point at which we have “more yesterdays than tomorrows,” as Bill Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention earlier this week.No Regrets

  • One friend ruminates about why he has married two different women who have never measured up to a passionate love interest of his youth.
  • Many women regret the choices inherent in combining children and a career.
  • I’ve had to reconcile that I am too old to become a lawyer or a political reporter, knowing that I would have done well at either profession.

Leading with my left — developing new patterns of thinking — means I don’t allow myself to get stuck in the rut of regrets.

Leading with my left means I suppress my irritation when a friend who has depression doesn’t return my voicemail or text messages. Instead I talk to a man who has his depressive tendencies under control, and he suggests some kindhearted questions I might pose to her.

Leading with my left means trusting my gut — and my outrage — when a financial adviser with whom I had intended to invest my retirement savings tells me that my 26-year-old son lacks a “real job.” My son, a college graduate, works full time. He has health insurance and a 401(k) plan. He recently got promoted. He works hard at his craft.

But his job is at a brewery, and that apparently lacks cachet and aspiration for a woman who makes her living among society’s fortunate few. Her comment gnaws at me. “Is it important that your financial adviser shares your values?” I finally ask two friends.

Leading with my left means recognizing that I already know the answer. “All work is honorable,” I told my boys when they were young. I am proud of my son, and that’s the only message he will hear from me.

The underside of strength

An industrial psychologist introduced me to the notion of a “shadow side” of our perceived strengths. In yoga, we call it the marriage of opposites: yin and yang. If one part of us dominates — whether it’s a character trait or one side of our body — we will eventually fall out of balance.

I’m an ENTJ in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a decisive personality type that gets a lot done, but sometimes at the expense of others. In the two years since I stepped away from management, I have learned to exert influence rather than exercise authority and to value collaboration more than control.

Leading with my left at work is not always easy, but the softening seems particularly suited to middle age. “As my energy started to change, the energy that I got back from other people started to change,” said former police officer and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice Cheri Maples in a recent episode of On Being.

In the case of my 91-year-old father, leading with my left has meant becoming a more present daughter in the time that he has left. For years my dad and I have kept a respectful distance, despite our similar strengths and countervailing weaknesses:

  • A strong moral code that constructs rigid definitions of right and wrong.
  • A love of fitness and exercise that judges weight gain as lack of discipline.
  • A sense of duty and responsibility that leads us to rely on work for self-esteem and recognition.

I spent the first afternoon of my summer vacation helping Dad sort through a lifetime of his beloved books. As he and my stepmother prepared to leave their house for the security and convenience of a seniors’ apartment, I stepped forward for the one way I could help.

An English major in college, I love libraries and bookstores. I don’t own an e-reader, and it has never occurred to me to buy one. Sorting through and boxing up my father’s books allowed me insight into his thinking and character in a way that his stoic, taciturn nature would not allow.

Leading with my left, in the twilight of Dad’s life, means letting go: of the blame for circumstances that were not his fault, of the insecurity that said he never really loved me. Leading with my left means being, today, the daughter I wish I had been for decades — forgiving him, forgiving myself, for being human.