Dear Family Advisor

Mom says caregiving is "women's work" -- which means I can't get any help from Dad.

Last updated: Sep 28, 2010

My parents have been married for 53 years. Mom has diabetes and a heart condition and needs help with errands, meal prep, doctor visits, everything. She won't let Dad help her much, though he tries -- it's "not man's work," she says, and he won't stand up to her. So they turn to me (the only daughter of three children) to do everything!

I don't want to disappoint my parents and I do like helping them, but at the same time, Mom's outdated views are killing me! I have my own family and busy life, and every time there's a crisis, my stress level rises. My brothers say to let them be; they're the product of their times. Easy for them to say -- they don't have to do the work!

It's time to educate your family. The days of caregiving duties falling solely on the shoulders of women are long gone. There's no need to take on the responsibility of caring for your parents without assistance. No need to announce it, though; just start implementing quiet changes that will help to greatly reduce your stress and allow for more family load-sharing.

As difficult as it is, most adult children have to learn how to stand up to their parents and, at a certain critical point, take charge. It's not that we want to manage someone else's life (Lord knows we can barely handle our own), but when we know they're not healthy or safe or they're making poor decisions -- ones that affect our lives in big ways -- then we have to suck in a deep breath and stand our ground. Let them think you're the bad guy all they want, but do what's right.

Since Dad is willing to help, start with him. Make him your care buddy. Breeze in the house with a list of errands, quickly pick up Dad, and get him out the door to "ride along" before your mom can come up with an excuse as to why not. Just say you want to spend some time with your dad.

Slowly do more things together. Ask him to help you wash the dishes or fold clothes while watching a TV show he likes. Ignore your mom's protests and say, "We like doing things together." Dad will probably enjoy the attention and helping out, and this gets him in the habit of contributing.

Explain separately to your Dad and each of your brothers that you have a life, too, and must have help with the housework and errands. Your mom may respond more to this coming from them than from you. There's nothing like a man's voice to make certain folks listen. My mom respected my husband's opinions so much more than she did mine. I think she was just programmed to listen to a male authority figure. Use it! Whatever works.

Can your brothers afford to chip in some money for care, either to pay you or to hire outside help? Ask them. After all, you've been giving up a sizable chunk of your free time. You shouldn't be the only one making sacrifices.

Perhaps you could have a family "chore day" at your parents' house. Get everyone together, order pizza, and do some overdue big jobs that require brawn or teamwork. This will be a great example of how your parents' needs should be tackled -- as a family. Schedule these "family days" once a quarter or twice a year. Remind your siblings that your parents have three adult children.

As for your mom, try to listen to what's behind her "this is women's work" line. She probably doesn't like the fact that she can't "do it all" any more. She doesn't like asking for help. She may feel like no one can do it like she did -- or she may be falling back on what she was taught by her mother and not questioning how unrealistic it is for you to take on so much on top of your own life.

Rather than being defensive, ask her what it was like in her home when she was growing up -- what it was like raising three young children -- and then listen. She may have some old beliefs she needs to voice and work through before she can begin to move on.

You may never change her mind. She may really believe that family care is women's work. Don't give up on her. Even if she's stubborn, continue to love and be there for her and for your dad, but prioritize. Do what really needs to be done, and let other things go, or delegate. She may have to see that you truly can't and won't "do it all." This isn't really about women's work -- it's about coming together as a family.