The Daughter Track: Balancing Career and Caring for Your Parents

Caring for an aging parent tests us in ways we never imagined. Will it force us out of jobs we love and need?

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Work or Family?

It was a sunny September morning when the phone rang and I heard my mom whisper, "I’m in the hospital."

"Oh my god, what happened to you?"

"It’s not me," she said. "It’s Dad. He’s had a stroke."

In an hour, I was boarding a plane for the longest three-hour flight of my life. When I got to the hospital, Dad was hooked up to machines, struggling to speak, and apologizing to me — first for having "this stupid thing" happen and then for "making you fly all the way to Fort Myers." The next night, as his strength began to return, he said, "You’ve got to get back to your job."

My parents have always been proud of my career. But it surprised me that even in this crisis, they pushed me back to work. I flew north to a long-scheduled client meeting, torn between my identities as a successful executive and as a good daughter who loves her parents beyond words. I barely remember the meeting, but I’ll never forget how disappointed in myself I felt for choosing work over family. Dad recovered. My nine-to-nine life went on.

That was my first taste of the Daughter Track. Many women my age are caught between two competing priorities: sustaining a hard-won career and tending to parents who are living longer and needing more of our help.

Suddenly, They Really Need Us

When Rose Haeni’s mother was struck with sudden, severe dementia, Haeni, 49, had to leave her job as a medical records manager to supervise her mom’s care. "Mother was hospitalized and misdiagnosed many times — with Alzheimer’s, stroke, general dementia. Then she was moved to a rehab center," Haeni says. "I didn’t realize there would be so much for me to do: monitoring her medications, staying vigilant with the staff and keeping a detailed diary of her care. But I absolutely needed to stay on top of things to keep her safe." Haeni’s mother died in April 2005; an autopsy revealed that the dementia had been caused by an inflammation of the brain.

Since then, Haeni, who lives in Walworth, Wisconsin, has been unable to find another full-time job in the medical field, despite her 18 years of experience. She works seasonally as a first-aid professional for a summer theater and volunteers for a hospice and at a homeless shelter. "It seemed like I coped through my mother’s illness, but now I’m having a very difficult time getting back into the workforce," she says.

Haralee Weintraub, a 53-year-old pharmaceutical representative from Portland, Oregon, discovered that the way to juggle elder care and career was to invite her mother into her working life. Weintraub’s 80-year-old mother was inconsolable after losing her husband of 56 years, and what she missed most was the way the two of them used to talk over the minutiae of each day. So Weintraub, who lives 3,000 miles away, came up with a palliative of "yakking and working together."

With seed money left to her by her father, Weintraub moved from fulltime to part-time work and started Haralee.com, an online company offering products that help women with symptoms of menopause. Even though her mother is homebound, Weintraub appointed her vice president, printed business cards for her, and asked her to help with marketing. "Her responsibilities keep her sharp, the work helps her stay positive, and our daily chats keep us connected," Weintraub says. "Three years later, she is still lonely, and I still feel I could do more. But we are coping, growing our business, and yakking successfully!"

When It’s All on Our Shoulders

Discovering at midlife that you have a second career as caregiver comes with its own set of silent setbacks: Some of us miss out on promotions and forgo relocation offers. The underlying stress erodes our productivity. And our savings suffer, thanks to the escalating cost of care.

When Laurie Hartman’s father had a stroke nine years ago, she thought he was lucky because he could still care for himself. But Hartman, now 50, was unprepared for the devastating personality change that accompanied his condition. He became unruly and abusive to his grown children, grandchild, and his wife of 50 years. So Hartman and her brother were forced to separate the couple — Dad with her brother in Virginia, Mom with Hartman in Warren, New Jersey.

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