Life Balance: I Had to Choose Between My Dying Mother And My Infant Daughter

Posted on July 7, 2011 by

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life balance: I chose my dying mother over my infant

"It felt like I was choosing between being a good Mom and being a good daughter –and I never felt I did either adequately."

Guest Post by Jessica Sherman


When I was pregnant, I imagined my first tough parenting choices would be to boob or not to boob.  I thought I might fret over a nanny or daycare.

I never thought I would be choosing between putting my infant daughter to sleep or taking care of my dying mother.

A few weeks before my daughter was born, my Mom had a heart attack.  It was rather mild but its outcome was far from mild.  It turned a woman who had been self-sufficient, driving and living on her own into someone who could no longer food shop.  She became prone to falling, but worse, she developed acute chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and was tethered to an oxygen machine most of the time.

In those heady and sleepless days of newborn parenting, I had to choose to leave my six-week-old daughter in other people’s care while I cared for my Mom.  I had to pump breast milk in closets while touring old age facilities. I had to drive my shrieking daughter through Manhattan during rush hour just so she could visit her bedridden grandma.  It felt like I was choosing between being a good Mom and being a good daughter –and I never felt I did either adequately.

I watched other new moms worry about going back to work and go through the normal trials and tribulations of parenting and I felt very alone.  I was jealous of women who had the luxury of complaining about their overbearing mothers butting into their parenting choices. I  juggled changing my baby’s diaper and helping my Mother change her adult diapers.

As my daughter got older and my Mom got less stable, my brothers and I shared caretaking duties. Because I was a full time working mother and had an infant, I agreed to stay once a month with my mother. I felt incredibly guilty I was not staying there once a week to help. Yet, I was bitter that I had to choose to leave my daughter once a month to stay with my Mom overnight. On that monthly overnight with my mother, I sat frozen in bed waiting for her to either stop breathing or fall off her sleepless perch on the edge of the bed, where she sat most nights.

Soon my daughter was old enough and I got to choose to bring her with me to hospitals for visits with Mom.  Sometimes my husband would have to amuse my little girl in the waiting room while I went to the ICU ward.  Other times, we got to sanitize my daughter’s chubby toddler fingers over and over as she climbed around one hospital room or another.  She gave my Mom great joy but I had serious concerns about exposing a child to hospital “super” bugs.  My daughter has always been happy go-lucky and carefree.  She didn’t seem the least bit affected by my obligations: working and caring for my mom. She didn’t mind playing in an old woman’s dirty apartment or a sterile medical facility instead of the park–but I felt awful for it.

When my daughter was about two and a half, compassion fatigue set in for me. I hit a wall and was just tired out from worrying for so long about her falling, her getting sicker, her dying. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Thankfully, my Mom moved in with my brother.  She had more stable care. In return, I stopped feeling guilty for choosing my Mom over my daughter—or vice versa—but the relief was short-lived.  My Mom spiraled downwards and I was back to making choices.  My daughter was becoming an interactive little person and I just couldn’t keep choosing my Mom over my daughter’s needs.  I felt awful again, choosing to spend the weekend home and in the park and doing our laundry instead of at my brother’s caring for my mother.  I felt sick leaving for vacation with my daughter and husband while my Mom was just out of ICU.  How could I play in the waves while she was alone in a stinky hospital room?

Maybe, none of that matters now that she has passed.  My Mom died a couple months after my daughter’s third birthday.  My last painful choice was to decide if my daughter should visit with my Mom during her last hours.  Now those tough decisions have been replaced by deciding between going to the zoo or finger painting.

Life without my Mom is a new and lonely frontier.  I have a new freedom but it comes at the cost of my Mom’s life. My parenting perspective has been altered.  Compassion fatigue is hard to shake off.  It has made me a little intolerant of mothers who cry about leaving their children for an overnight girl’s trip or women who won’t leave their child’s side because they need to nurse them.  Maybe I should be a bigger person, but I am not. On the upside, I am much more understanding of folks who don’t parent conventionally. I no longer tsk-tsk women with toddlers in tow at the supermarket at 10 p.m. Who knows what choices they have to make?

I am big enough to mostly forgive myself for not knowing what the right choice was for the past three years and flubbing through it the best I could.  I think my mother forgave me. My daughter won’t remember it. But it was a painful lesson in motherhood. This is not how I perceived motherhood to be—who would have known? While many choices in life are black and white, the grey areas of mothering lie in places you may not expect.

(Image: kevindooley)

Jessica Sherman lives in New York with her daughter and husband. This is her first published story.