A good friend, Serena,* called me in tears.
"Sam just doesn't understand," she said, "and it's so difficult on our marriage."
Serena, a stay-at-home mother, and Sam, an attorney, live in Milwaukee, a two-hour drive from her parents' farm. When it became evident that her mother's breast cancer was terminal, Serena began to spend several days a week at her parents' home.
She put nine thousand miles on her van in seven weeks in the middle of that icy Wisconsin winter. Sam demanded to know how long the arrangement would last.
"As long as she lives," had to be the answer.
If you think you're hearing more about caregiving than you used to, it isn't your imagination. Almost one in four American households, about 22.3 million, provides emotional or physical care for aging parents, spouses, or siblings. That's three times the number from ten years ago. Seventy-five percent of caregivers are women; many are employed full-time outside the home.
As the population ages and caregiving needs multiply, how can we fulfill the biblical mandate to "leave and cleave" while accomplishing the equally biblical command to honor and care for our parents?
"In sickness and unsupport"
One of her mom's hospice nurses had called Serena in the middle of dinner earlier that evening.
"Three doctors agree Mom is within three or four days of death," Serena told Sam and the girls as she hung up. "They say I should come tonight."
"Those doctors can't know that," he said.
"I don't want to risk it," Serena said. "I want to be there when she goes."
"Why?" Sam said. "You should be here with us, instead of neglecting us."
"Sam, she's my mother and she's dying! Don't you understand that?"
"I understand you're choosing between me and your mother," he said angrily. "Has it come to your attention that my mother has cancer also? I don't run home every time she sneezes." And with those words, he left the room.
"Did you and Sam ever discuss what you'd do when the end came for either of your mothers?" I asked when Serena called to tell me her story.
"No," Serena said. "Sam doesn't want to be there when his mom dies. He won't talk about it."
Even though Sam appears unsympathetic and hard, what happened to Serena and Sam is not uncommon. Caught in a caregiving circumstance beyond their control, communication broke down. Silence, hurt feelings, and to a certain extent, selfishness, reigned until it was too late to have a calm exchange of viewpoints.
Although your experience may not be as extreme as Sam and Serena's, many of the same issues can be avoided. While caregiving can be challenging, it can also be one of the most deeply rewarding experiences of your life—and marriage. Here are six ways you can ward off marital disaster and strengthen your bond when faced with caregiving.