The Shriver Report – Caregiving and the Battle of the Matriarchs
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Caregiving and the Battle of the Matriarchs

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This is not sexist.  It is DNA and it is truth: women are natural born caregivers who, though we may not like to admit it, are similar to men in that some of us are “alpha.” There is always the one woman who emerges as the Matriarch of her clan; sometimes she’s granted the place because she’s the only mother, the clear and natural choice for the position, but sometimes she has fought hard among female siblings to earn that title. Because we typically don’t like to see ourselves as aggressive or combative, it may be hard for women to admit to this very real dynamic, but it serves no one to deny it-–especially as our mothers age, as the Matriarch title is passed, or grabbed, from one generation to the next.  Then it can get very, very ugly.

My mother had a small family, three sons and one daughter. One of her sons passed away at the age of two making her especially fierce and protective. As the only daughter, and the youngest, my place in the family was always clear. I was the spoiled baby, Daddy’s girl and Mommy’s best hope for a child who would follow in her footsteps. Much to my mother’s confusion, I did not follow her path. My mother had always role-modeled strength and independence; she was one of only five women in her college graduating glass and she worked as a hospital pharmacist for thirty years, but I only emulated her career values, not her family choices.

At twenty-eight I moved three thousand miles away from my parents; I married late (in her eyes); chose not to have children, and then to her absolute horror I quit a well-paying job to start my own company. To my mother, I was a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

“So imagine her anxiety when her health started to decline and her only daughter–a daughter with no children and no real maternal experience–was her best caregiving resource.” 

So imagine her anxiety when her health started to decline and her only daughter–a daughter with no children and no real maternal experience–was her best caregiving resource. She must have been terrified of what I might do to her. She said I was like a robot, because when all hell broke loose and she and my father were simultaneously hospitalized for terminal conditions, I simply went into fix-it mode. For a few weeks they weren’t really my parents, they were a list of problems that needed to be resolved: where they would live, who would care for them, whether they could remain together, who would drive them to the doctor and so on. And of course, my career as a Chief Operations Officer had teed me up perfectly to untangle such complex issues.

In hindsight I now see how I didn’t just unseat my mother from her position of Matriarch, I literally pushed her off her throne and made her, my father and brothers my subjects. I was in charge, plain and simple. I wore the Crown.  The alpha female came out full force: I would take care of the family now.

That was all five years ago, and sometimes I positively cringe at my behavior–at the orders I barked at my brothers, my sister-in-law, and to my wonderful parents. Sometimes I try to rationalize that I did the best I could under dire circumstances.  At other moments, when I’m fully honest with myself, I simply want to say, “I’m sorry” for having been so bossy and insensitive.  As I have these thoughts I’m thankful that I was the only daughter because I see so many fights between sisters whose parents are aging. Most women truly believe they are advocating for their parents’ best care, but deep down some are actually fighting for that Crown and the title of family Matriarch.

While fighting for control of any sort may feel right and for the good of the family in the moment, trust me – at a later date the new generation of Queens will be cringing with embarrassment and regret for how they may have steamrolled over their siblings and their aging parents. Stop. Think about it. Take a deep breath and ask, what is driving the passion?

If I am completely and unabashedly candid, I wanted to prove to my parents that I was better at taking care of them then my older brothers were.  And surely I was over-compensating in someway for the fact that I never had children. I needed to prove I could be a good caregiver.

“We just need to love.  Love our parents, our siblings and ourselves.” 

Women everywhere, especially those with sisters, should know that there’s no need to prove anything when our parents are aging and dying.  We just need to love.  Love our parents, our siblings and ourselves. We need to fight the impulses of righteous indignation, of addressing wrongs from when we were eight years old and matters of “principle.” We need to dedicate ourselves to our parents’ safety and joy, to putting aside control and family arguments.  Imagine how our parents will feel leaving this earth knowing that they raised a family that loved each other enough and worked together so well that no one ever needed to fight for the Crown.

Rosanna Fay is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Rosanna Fay worked for over 25 years in high tech marketing, co-founding a successful mobile and entertainment marketing firm and serving as COO. After more than a decade of balancing that role with the support of her elderly parents, she shifted gears to become an Aging in Place consultant, helping families create and implement care plans as an alternative to living in communities or nursing homes. She’s the author of Careless Caregivers: True Eldercare Stories, a cautionary tale illustrating the risks of insufficient planning, and has contributed to The Atlantic.
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