Caring for Parents Who Weren't Good Parents

Sometimes I Hate My Mother -- But I Care for Her Anyway
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"I love my mother -- but sometimes I hate her, too." Saying those words out loud -- or even to yourself in your head -- can be a painful acknowledgment that even late in life we can't always make our relationships with our parents work out the way we want them to. And when you're caring for an aging or ill parent, having mixed or negative feelings can add guilt, sadness, and self-blame to an already difficult situation.

"Being a caregiver, or living with a caregiver, isn't easy like they portray it in those stupid commercials on TV," says Barbara Tubbs Hill of Florence, Alabama, who took care of her mother with Alzheimer's until her death three years ago. "They make it seem so sweet and nice, but it's not always like that."

Next Up: When Sympathy Is Our Greatest Instinct

Caring for a Loved One Who Wasn't a Good Parent

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If your childhood wasn't a happy one, or you didn't have a good relationship with your mother or father, it's no surprise that finding yourself in the role of caregiver can feel complicated. "I take care of my mom, but I don't feel warm and fuzzy towards her," says Susan Witherspoon (not her real name) of Knoxville, Tennessee, whose mother moved in with her last fall.

"My mother had favorites growing up, and I wasn't one of them," Susan says. "She was never cuddly, appreciative, or complimentary –- at one point she even disowned me. Once when I was young I asked my sister, 'How come she doesn't like me?' and she told me, 'She's jealous of you,' but knowing that didn't help."

Susan kept her distance from her mother for much of her life, but when her sister called and asked Susan to take over caregiving duties, she agreed. "I figured, I've had my reprieve, now it's my turn. I'll stick it out as long as I can, but I'm not going to take care of her every day until the end -- I just can't do that to myself."

To protect herself, Susan says, she's had to distance herself. "I think I've just turned the switch off to that part of myself," she says. "If my mother says thank you for taking her to the bank, I say you're welcome, but I don't wait for it. I've turned off my expectations. I've resigned myself that this is going to be it -- she's never going to acknowledge what happened, or apologize."

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

What's helped most in dealing with her mother, Susan says, is the community, where she's connected with others who feel the same way. "You think you're alone having these feelings, and then you find other people are going through the same thing and you don't feel so bad."

Other Caring members say what's worked best for them is to try to separate the present from the past. "I will never be able to erase my childhood, but I've let those feelings go," says one anonymous community member. "My mother was not the best mother, and it would be very easy to write her off, but she is what I had and she deserves to have someone looking after her now."

Caring for a Loved One Who Says Mean Things

"Remember that old song, 'You Always Hurt the One You Love'? That's how it was with my mother," says Barbara Tubbs Hill. "We loved each other, but we could cut each other to the quick faster than anyone." As her mother's disease progressed, Barbara says, her personality underwent a drastic change. "My mother went from thanking me for all the things I was doing for her to being angry with me all the time."

Perhaps hardest of all, Barbara says, was watching her mother speak kindly to others, then turn around and be cruel to her. "My mother could turn on and off in an instant -- she could be so nice and sweet to someone else and then give the me devil over nothing. Being late, not coming to take her somewhere on her time schedule. But now that's she's gone, I miss her more than I ever thought possible."

One way that many caregivers say they deal with angry or even abusive talk is to realize it's often not about them. "One thing I realized too late was how fearful my mother was, of everything, all her life. And the illness she had scared her so much, she struck out at the person who was always there for her, which was me," Barbara says. "I wish I had known how to handle it better, but I didn't."

"It helped me to talk to her doctors and understand what the disease was doing to her, as well as the effects of her medications," Barbara says. The Alzheimer's drug Aricept in particular, Barbara feels, was responsible for her mother's lashing out. "You can realize you love them, but you don't necessarily like them very much. And you certainly don't like the things they do."

Caring for a Loved One Who Never Says Thank You

Some people are grateful for help as they get older, and some take that care for granted, or are angry and resentful that they need help at all. That's the reality of the situation, as many members of are quick to acknowledge.

"I took my mother in and cared for her for three years, and the sad part is that she was never happy," says one anonymous community member. "Nothing I did ever satisfied her." After a fall sent her mother to a nursing home, the care and attention seemed to please her for awhile, but it soon wore off. "Now she's no happier than she was in my home. The moral of the story: Some people aren't going to be happy no matter where they are."

Your Loved One's Ingratitude Is Their Failing, Not Yours

The secret to dealing with lack of appreciation and avoiding resentment, caregivers say, is to understand that your loved one's ingratitude is their failing, not yours. "I came to realize that while I was devoting my life to her, she wasn't going to like, love, or approve of me any more than she ever had," says one community member. "She didn't see my taking care of her as a big deal, and I started to see how little she valued what I was giving her." It took time, she says, but in the end she learned a valuable life lesson. "What Mom gave me was the perspective that her inability to love and approve of me was about her, not about me."

Several years out from her mother's death, Barbara says she's only now making peace with everything that happened. "I didn't realize how much anger and hurt I had stored inside me until after she died," Barbara says. Working with a counselor helped her lay those feelings to rest and get some closure.

"Counseling helped me realize I really had done everything I could to help her," Barbara says. "And it helped me to remember what my mother was really like; she wasn't a bad person, it was the illness and her fear that made her act like that. I won't ever be able to forget all the terrible things that were said to me, but I know the person saying them was not the mother I had known and cared about. "

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

9 months, said...

Nice article. Im actually caring for my grandmother right now which I enjoy doing. She gives me a difficult time sometimes but I dont mind it much and I understand she was there for me when I most needed her so its my pleasure to help her. My trouble is my mother. She has always been a selfish and self absorbed person, wasnt the best mother and has been an even worse one in my adult years. She also wont take care of her mother, insisting that i do it alone with my aunt. It makes me upset..she made my grandmother cry a few weeks ago when she told her she needed to go back over my aunts house. I keep thinking...when she is old, i HAVE to take care of her and i get upset at that because she has never once done anything that wasnt selfishly motivated, including taking care of her own mother. Even though old age for my mother is about 20 or so from dreading it.... :(

over 1 year, said...

What a great article, made me realize I am not the only caregiver who deals with such troubling and difficult behavior while helping those we care and love, even though our feelings and thoughts, at times may trouble us. Then when our job is done, for whatever reason, we go thru such guilt feelings and sadness over choices made or words said. I am a caregiver to my older brother afflicted with ALZ, he never embraced me growing up, was just a mean guy, even to our parents RIP. I chose not to be a parent early on, but I am now, and realize what a challenging and difficult role it can be. My brother's old self is evident, magnified by the disease I am sure. I hear more no than yes, have to chose words carefully, and "watch my back." I want to help him, but, most of the time, he wants nothing of it. Finding the right fit to assist him with adl's, a male aide, took patience and time. With females, if he spotted weakness, he easily took control. He can be charming and sweet to others, seeming to know when it may work for him. Early on I was counseled and had to learn to be strong if I was going to help him, my pleading and tears would be useless. Caregiving, like parenting, I now know, is not an easy task, it's full time work and not always giving us a "feel good moment" or "good job feeling." I find myself doing things, saying things, making choices that I must, and trusting myself. There are many times I reach out to professionals for their knowledge, seek my higher faith and shred tears in private. I've been asked why I continue this role, 5 years go by quickly when you're busy and like any job we tend to "hang in there." I give a sh__, care about him, love him still. God Bless All Caregivers

over 1 year, said...

I admire those of you who have found peace. My mother was neglectful/absent/shaming during my youth and is demanding/threatening toward me as an adult, but really, really nice/sweet to everyone else. The only thing I have gotten from all this is clarification that it was not my imagination.

over 2 years, said...

I would love to Get help with all my mixed up Feelings. I'm tired and don't want my last years to be filled with anger and guilt.

almost 4 years, said...

My mother had a great life being a stay at home mother but the time was spent on her golfing,cards,bowling and the home not her two children. Her mother died when she in her 50s so taking care of her mother was not in her life. She soon took off for Florida right after my marring for most of the year with my father, so helping with the grandchildren were not part of her life either. Now that she has needed someone which was in her 70s After dad passed i became the one and was expected since my career was nursing. She is now in her 90s and her mood swings are horrible. My sister who is 8 years my senior has not been able to let go of her anger from all the years of outspoken and critical ways of mother so I have been alone with this task. My father told my before he died to do the right thing and for him I have been trying but am getting closer to the end of my rope. At 62 I want my time not working 40 hours a week and then spending all my weekends taking her out so she can have some freedom from the assisted living. I just wish someone would just step in and help. And wish all her old friends would stop telling her that she doesn't belong in assisted living. My question is when will it ever end? I can't stand her nasty mood swings especially when I am doing it for her not for me.

almost 4 years, said...

I have spent far more time caring for my mom over the past 20 years than she spent in my entire life. She wasn't the kind of mom I wanted her to be and could be quite unkind. I still love her & prefer to think of her as limited in her ability to be a mom rather than that she hurt me intentionally. My older sister will not participate in her care at all so it falls all on me. I care for her because that is what my conscious dictates. I'm doing it mostly for myself so that I will have no regrets. I will miss her regardless.

almost 4 years, said...

Thank you for this wonderful article, I believe we can never educate ourselves enough when it comes to behavior, it's such a challenge. I became my brother's care partner (the new term I'm told) in 2011 when he was diagnosed with AZ. He resided 1000 miles away, preferring warm over cold weather. His visits during the years were minimal, friends (there for fun and good times) replaced family it seemed, who believed in loving and caring, unconditionally. I envied brothers and sisters who had a special bond, distance hindered that for us, then along came the AZ. His dominant and spirited personality remains stronger than ever these days, I presume the illness contributing to that. He's in denial and angry, understandably so, longing for his love of independence and old life, the way things used to be. I get that and question what happened as well? His anger is shared with me privately; I remind myself to not attempt to reason (there's no winning), try to remember to bite my tongue and walk away from hurtful words. I've learned that minimal conversation or a white lie may be the better choice and forgetting and forgiving is a must these days. There's adjustment in this "new normal" for everyone, a care partner may be a better term I presume, I find myself having to adapt these days. My goal was to make things better for him from this journey's beginning, seeking out the best care along the way, I don't know if he realizes this, but it doesn't matter I feel I've made a difference for him. Family, home, love and memories have always mattered to me. In 2011 he realized he needed me, his cell phone had become useless to him, he handed my number on a birthday card I had sent, he asked, "Call my sister," they did, I'm glad. God Bless All Caregivers, which we are, and remember to take care of you as well!

almost 4 years, said...

The same thing can be true in a not-so-great marriage, when you must spend much time and effort to give care and not be appreciated much or at all.

almost 4 years, said...

I took care of my Mom the last 16 years of her life and we got along better than we had the previous years. My Mom knew she needed help and was grateful that I was there for her. My only real complaint was that when my husband and I had a disagreement & she knew about it, she would take his side. I told her not to intervene (unless she planned to defend me)! She was afraid that he would "throw" her out and when I heard that I told her he couldn't: I owned the house and she was my Mother and no way could he ever make her leave our home. I also took care of my husband who had Alzheimer's for many years. As he got worse I hired Aides but very few of them were properly trained and after coping for a year I gave up and with the help of my (adult) children, moved him to Assisted Living where he thrived. Eventually the disease took over and after 5 years he died (last November). By the way, my children have been wonderful!