Sometimes the lack of female bylines in the Atlantic Monthly, or the tendency to publish sexist fear-mongering, annoy me. But I have to give it up to the Atlantic for last month’s compelling portrait of caregiving and its discontents by contributing editor Jonathan Rauch. Rauch writes about his incredibly painful and confusing experience of taking care of his father as he struggled with the indignities of deteriorating and dying. It’s totally honest and very moving. An excerpt:
My professional work all but stopped. Finding doctors for him and getting him to appointments and coordinating escalating medical needs swallowed entire days. I managed until one hot July afternoon. I was at my desk closing a column when Michael called from Costco, where he had taken my father shopping. My father had gone stiff on one side, become incoherent and unable to stand, and didn’t know where he was. I had to get over there, Michael said, in a quietly frightened voice. I jumped up and ran out, but by the time I arrived my father had recovered and did not remember anything untoward happening. “Do you need to see a doctor?” I asked, stupidly. He just gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’m okay,” he said. I stood there, in the produce aisle, with no idea what to do, frightened by my incompetence and, worse, furious at my father for putting me in this impossible position.
That was the day I realized that he could not cope and I could not cope and, emotionally, he could take me down with him. And I discovered in myself an awful determination not to let that happen.
Rauch goes on to draw a parallel between the silent suffering of so many people taking care of aging and dying parents and relatives, and the “problem with no name” that Betty Friedan talked about in The Feminine Mystique. No one wants to talk about how difficult it is to manage the affairs, much less the sadness, of a dying loved one, so folks walk around trying to keep a brave face on while being crushed–emotionally and logistically. Rauch writes:
Today’s invisible caregivers face their own version of a nameless problem. They are being asked to do alone and out of sight what in fact requires not just private sympathy and toleration but public acknowledgment and proactive assistance…I can say, from experience, that convincing caregivers they need help is not easy, at least not until they need it too much. Americans pride themselves on resilience and independence. We don’t want to burden others with our problems. We don’t like to acknowledge that a crisis is happening or imminent. Above all, we prefer to assume that our own and our parents’ declines will be smooth and uneventful. By keeping the problem out of sight and consigning it to the realm of the “personal,” the culture enables our natural tendencies toward denial, procrastination, and silence.
The personal is political, once again. While it would be nice to see Rauch couching this in the larger framework of the ways in which caregiving gets invisibilized and devalued in this society, it was refreshing to see a man being so candid and public about his own struggle with what has so often been seen as a female problem.
I truly believe that the crisis of caregiving in this country (lack of childcare, eldercare, maternity and paternity leave, vacation time etc.), won’t end until it becomes everyone’s problem. Rauch took a brave step in moving the issue in that direction.