Ask JKE is our monthly advice column written by Jackie Kai Ellis. Submit your questions anonymously here.
As a woman in my mid-30s, I’m starting to see the decline with my aging parents—especially during this global pandemic, where age is such a factor with the risk of COVID. I’m also a first-generation Asian Canadian woman; I was raised with the expectation to take care of them when they got older. This was further complicated when my parents and I went through a rough patch just a few years ago. I feel this pull of wanting to live my life for myself, to explore and devote my time to my career and what makes me happy—but also there’s this obligation and sense of guilt if I wasn’t around to take care of them. I’ve always wanted to live abroad and try out living in a different city, but this guilt and responsibility weighs on me. I have a younger brother, but he hasn’t been socialized with the same responsibility, and I also feel resentment about this. Can you relate? How do I not resent my parents or myself in the future?
-Eldest Daughter with Aging Parents
Dear Eldest Daughter with Aging Parents,
I understand this weight. I have it, too, though we all feel it differently and to varying degrees. Nonetheless, as I watch my parents reach their seventies, the decisions about our future looms with anxiety. What will it look like? Will my parents come live with me? Will I feel like I’m drowning in the needs and expectations of others? Will I give up on all I have planned, my dreams, my future? If so, how long do I have?
I’ve been thinking about this especially with my aging parents and a baby on the way—news that (at 42) was not planned. What I had imagined—early retirement, travel, superfluous spending, freedom—is now derailed. Life has a way of doing that. Now I find myself wondering if I’ll end up squeezed into the “sandwich generation,” taking care of those above and below, and how I’ll navigate it without drowning in busyness and feelings of obligation. Parents aside, even with questions of motherhood, the sacrifice, and my changing identity, I am terrified of forgetting the self I have come to love so much. Especially when the happiness of loved ones will be so intertwined with my own.
The fine balance of living
If we are being honest, even before pregnancy, even before aging parents, the question of balancing others’ desires and expectations with our own has always existed (just not so blatantly). Oftentimes I’ve pushed myself to exhaustion, adding that one extra to-do on my plate, saying yes mindlessly, moving away from self-care—little step by little step. And in the end, these small daily decisions can have a greater impact than the colossal ones, simply because we undermine their power. With time, loss, and in moments of clarity, we learn what our own fine balance looks like. This is just another stage of learning—more deeply and more intimately—who we are, what we truly want to experience, what we are willing to forgo, and what happiness looks like to us now.
Making it your own
When I got married recently, a wise friend said to me, “Make it your own.” I thought about how true that is for every part of life. What works for me may not work for others, and I have no obligation to follow the way others have done things. With other aspects of my life, I’ve hardly followed a conventional path. I changed careers at seemingly illogical moments, bought a vacation home before I even had a home, and willingly sacrificed things that most would consider dear priorities—because my own priorities were simply different.
At one point, I had cleared off the slate of my life and carefully chosen what I wanted to include, keep, and let go of. I allowed myself to dream up my idea of a perfectly crafted life: what was crucial to me to have, to experience, and to wake up to, and who I’d share it all with. And every time that I found myself saying, “That’s not possible,” I’ve found it helpful to immediately ask these questions: “Well, why not?” “Are there examples where this was possible?” “What would I have to give up in order to make room for this, as wild as it might seem?” “Is it worth it, or do I want what I already have more?”
I mention this for two reasons: first, because I believe we can have pretty much anything we want, but not everything and certainly not all at once. There’s only so much room in your garden: you have to choose what you want to plant, and what you need to prune or dig out. Growing something new requires sacrifice, but we get to choose what we are willing to uproot, and for what to sprout.
Second, when we give, we must give with a willing heart. It’s only sustainable when we’ve intentionally made the choice to do so and are at peace with the reasons why. Otherwise our garden will grow wild with resentment.
Even with a clear decision, guilt and shame may still pop in once in a while; but only you live with the consequences of your decisions, because only you have weighed it all carefully. No one else has the right to judge, because no one else lives your life. Sometimes resentment at others—at your brother—will still peek through the soil during challenging moments. But in those moments, there is no one to point to but yourself. Others are responsible for their decisions and you are responsible for yours. Luckily, if you’re unhappy with what you’ve chosen, another decision can always be made (because sometimes we just need to test out what’s not working in order to know what is). That’s not to say you can’t ask others for support and help, or for what you want. But you must respect their decisions as you’d want others to respect yours. We have no idea what others are weighing in their own lives.
Love like this
My parents and I have had our issues, too. We still do. Though, years ago, when I thought I wouldn’t have children, I had decided that I wanted to care for my parents because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to know what that kind of love felt like: the selfless, sometimes thankless care and patience for another, despite the fact that you might not even like them much at times. I wanted to know what it meant to love them unconditionally, knowing it would require sacrifice, because there’s a unique kind of person that is revealed in us that only this kind of love can inspire. I wanted that for myself. When I found out I was pregnant, it was with the same reason that I decided I wanted to experience motherhood. Yet I find myself having to contemplate the space in my garden again. There’s just not enough room for everything, and I haven’t yet decided which things need to go and which I just can’t live without.
In the end, I’ll choose. I have time, and things will evolve and change. After certain flowers bloom, I might admire them so much that others I loved before may not hold the same beauty to me anymore.
It sounds like you might have time, too. A lot changes in a day, a month, and especially a year. Not everything needs to be decided immediately, and as we experience life, our desires change, as well. I’ll choose a balance that suits me most; you’ll eventually choose something unique to you.
In the meantime, apart from all of these heavy decisions, what would make you smile at this moment? What do you want your unique life to look like right now?