Father's Day: On Fatherhood & Family in a Cross-Generational Household
It’s 4am and I’m sitting on the couch watching the lightening storm outside, eating a chocolate bar and drinking coffee. My love is with family out of town celebrating the first part of the Father’s Day weekend — his first time celebrating it himself. He returns to us tonight and tomorrow we celebrate together. I’ve just started yet another load of laundry, grateful to have gotten 6 consecutive hours of sleep last night after a week of getting up at night with my mother-in-law every 20 minutes, because her body and brain were in one of her epic no-sleep spin cycles. Yes, Dementia sucks.
There is a point in life and a cross-generational home like ours, when the child becomes the parent and protector. There doesn’t seem to be a word for this phenomena, not really, not one that expresses fully the intricacies and intimacies of this role change. I’ve been trying to come up with one; you’d think living in it I’d be able to put a name to it, but I’m at a loss. Nothing seems to fully convey and honour the complexities of this dynamic… a changing of the guard, so to speak, that is acquiesced to and undesired. I hear a lot about caregivers and we’re called caregivers by most everyone. But the term “caregiving” sounds too close to “babysitting” for my taste. Nowhere in our life together, and nothing about our family, is as simple or straightforward or as ephemeral as these terms imply. Our family is earning its wolf pack status the hard way. We don’t play around, we show up and love and protect.
Nothing prepares you for this change. The first time you hear your mother-in-law call her beloved son “daddy” and believe that he is, crushes your heart into a million sobbing pulpy pieces. When she is having a more lucid moment, she talks about the shifting roles and tells me as I help her that I’m like her new momma now.
Like parents with a child, we get up with her to calm her down and cajole her back into bed, only instead of the feeding schedule of a newborn we have the 20 minute brain down-cycles of a brilliant, frustrated woman losing her battle with dementia. We cook, we clean, we do 3–4 loads of laundry a day, we try to wear her out by day so we can all sleep more soundly at night, we tag in and out in an attempt to give each other a hot shower, a cup of coffee, or an hour of sleep undisturbed. One wall of our kitchen is a communication center filled with schedules, daily reminders, and a chore chart of tasks that have got to be done every day at the exact same time, to create consistency and emotional security for a disease that has neither.
We juggle medication schedules, doctors appointments, our own therapy appointments (often with her by our side because she can’t be left alone at home or in the waiting room; in these moments we are grateful that because she is deaf and hears through a cochlear implant, the device is able to be turned off for privacy,) family schedules, and work. We soothe tears and fears, make her favorite eggs while making her laugh, and clean up accidents. We have whole conversations about poop, fall into bed exhausted, and whisper reminders and flirt with each other as we tiptoe through the house after she finally falls asleep at 7:00 in the morning. And we smile in the face of frustration, anger, and sleep deprivation when we wake her up just three and a half hours later (as her Neurologist recommends) so that (with luck) her body falls back into a more regular sleep schedule tonight. (Fingers crossed.)
I imagine this new role is strange for most anyone. But when you go through it as a couple who has yearned to have children, lost five pregnancies, and battled infertility for five and half years and soon-to-be-nine rounds of infertility treatments without success, it takes on a surreal nature. Grief, loss, an acceptance of sorts, measured forward movement, and also a purposeful celebration of where we each are in this moment, here, today, has become the natural state of our days and home.
The accoutrements of elder care and baby care are surprisingly similar: baby monitors so you can tell if she’s talking in her sleep or if you need to get up and respond; diaper bags; wet wipes and disinfectant wipes are everywhere; there are stuffed animals, cuddly blankets, and crayons and drawing implements throughout the house; Hatch Baby’s Rest sound machine and nightlight has preserved her sleep many nights.
We are cognizant of the dissonance in this and we walk through it carefully. We try to ensure that our home — -and her space and position within our home — -reinforces who she is, reminds her of her life’s adventures, and doesn’t patronize a woman who has always been a fierce feminist, who values independence and dignity, and who knows keenly in sometimes surprising moments that her mind and body are edging closer to the end of life. If life is a circle, birth and death are intertwined and it’s no wonder the needs of one mirror the needs of the other. We are reminded daily of where we are and where we hope to be, as if we could ever forget either.
It’s a mind fuck. This dementia thing. This infertility thing. This losing a child thing. This losing a parent thing. This not having children thing. This parenting thing. This parenting a parent thing. Societal definitions of what constitutes a parent, a mother, a father.
And it’s harder. It’s harder than any parenting I’ve done. It’s harder than any parenting I’ve seen done.
This morning, as the sun rises, and my love celebrates his first father’s day weekend, I want to say thank you. Those without imagination, who are beholden to rules and definitions may not see that you are a father, but I do, my love. You live it day in, and day out, with a strength, love, humour, ferocity, and grace that I haven’t seen matched in many birth fathers.
I’m reminded of a truth I discovered in my own childhood: fatherhood is not merely a state one attains or a title one wears because a child was born. It is something one becomes through living it fully… in all the hard, messy, uncomfortable, exhausted, visceral, love-soaked moments of providing, guiding, sustaining, protecting, loving and caring for another human soul.
To you, my love, Happy Father’s Day. I celebrate you and I see all the ways you show up, live, and love for me, for your mom, for our family, and for our future. I love you and I am so very proud to be walking this path with you. There is no better partner and I am grateful for you and to you for giving me this beautiful family.
There are many kinds of fathers and parents. To you, the untraditional fathers and parents, to those who parent in a million other ways caring for loved ones instead of children, to those who are struggling to have children or have experienced loss like ours, and for those who are blessed with children in any of the ways they may have arrived in your life… Happy Father’s Day. Happy Parent’s Day to those who don’t identify as Fathers. Happy Celebrate You Day. I hope you celebrate the things that make you and your family — big, small, birth, chosen, cross-generational, etc. — so unique and special. The world needs more of your kind of care, love, and joy.