Recently my 72-year-old-mother was told she needed chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
Within two weeks of hearing the news I flew home to Australia to spend six weeks with my parents as "mum" began treatment.
From the moment my aircraft wheels touched down, it was clear my parents were ready and waiting for me to step in and manage my mother’s illness. Both seemed relieved for me to take mum to treatments, manage medications and injections, meet with her doctors and take over her day-to-day care.
That expanded role also extended into other areas. In between treatments I called plumbers and electricians to my parents home for work that had been let go leading up to the treatment and liaised with my brother and extended family and set up organizational tools for my mother’s continued care.
Part of that expanded role was also to become the emotionally strong one; to promise them that everything would be fine when my mother was weak and crying and to divert them with trips and outings on the better days. It was the adult equivalent of kissing the hurt knee and covering it with a band-aid. When I cried it was alone at night in my room, with the resolution that I could put on a smile and sound the cheerful rally for everyone the next morning.
The trip evidenced another step in the evolving parent-child relationship, where little by little our roles in guidance and caring reverse hands. It is a sweet yet unsettling transition.
While my parents are only in their 70s, I noted a change in them over the last five years. They are in no way less competent, but they are considerably less confident. They are happy to hand over responsibility in areas they would not have before and to look for help and direction in an increasing number of areas.
Looking back, I wonder if this change wasn’t hastened by the mammoth rise in importance of the Internet. Like many parents, my father has a computer and e-mails and uses a basic Word program, but remains far from comfortable doing information searches. He has only recently ventured into the deep well of "Googling" information. My mother remains blissfully disinterested with the computer and tech toys.
The result has been that I was sending information, researching their questions and making bookings for them at an earlier age than I might have otherwise. This unequal access to information was the beginning of the larger shift in our relationship as a whole. It makes me wonder whether the role reversal will happen even earlier for the next generation, as I watch my 40-year-old brother already asking his 12-year-old to download an application or program his phone, aware that she has greater skills and knowledge in this area than he has.
While technology may hasten the transition, the shift in roles is an inevitable and glorious part of the evolution of the parent-child relationships as a whole. Little by little, we as children take on the role of caring and guidance that our parents previously held in our own lives.
The oddness of this transition never completely goes away. It is still unsettling for me to negotiate with my father’s mechanic—in his presence and at his request—and to take charge of my mother’s chemotherapy treatments and note her shaking hands and new physical frailty.
You just don’t notice or witness those things as a child.
For this reason, this evolution is also a marker in our own lives. It is a sign that we are also aging and that this new transition is around the corner for us all.
Our parents have taken us by the hand and cared for us for decades; now it’s our turn.