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Setting Limits to Caregiving

By Roberta Satow

(Page 2 of 3)

Ever since I returned to New York from college in California at age twenty-one, I took a minimalist approach to seeing my mother. I saw her and spoke to her as little as possible. My sister enjoyed shopping with her, but I never did. I never felt good about myself in my mother’s presence because I was always struggling with yearning for her to be what she could never be and being angry with her for being unable to be that. I guess what I wanted her to be was a mother with whom I could feel like a good daughter. But that was not possible.

About two years ago I realized that my mother could not take care of herself. She forgot to make entries in her checkbook, although she had been a crackerjack bookkeeper when I was a girl. She could add a long list of numbers in her head and never lose track of the total. Now she couldn’t figure out where to enter the amount of the check. Her clothes were dirty and she was steadily losing weight. I had been denying it. But I couldn’t deny it any longer. I had to find some way of helping my mother cope with living while maintaining my own life—bringing a cup to relieve some of her feeling of helplessness, but not drowning in her neediness.

Setting limits is difficult for most people—it’s a common problem in many areas of our life, not just caregiving. It’s hard to say “no” or “enough” without feeling guilty. It’s difficult to tell a friend she can’t borrow money or tell your son he can’t have another toy he can’t live without. I had a terrible time toilet training my older son. One of my friends used to console me by saying: “Don’t worry, by the time he gets married he’ll be toilet trained.” The more you project your own neediness on to someone else and then identify with the person to whom you are saying “no,” the harder it is to do it without feeling bad about yourself. I would start off feeling like a separate adult and saying: “Okay, now you’re going to use the toilet.” As soon as Matthew started yelling that he didn’t want to use the toilet, I would start identifying with him. How can I force him to do what he doesn’t want to do? I’ll be acting like my mother. I’ll wait until he wants to use the potty. Except he never got to that point. He was three years old and they wouldn’t let him into nursery school in diapers so I went to a child psychologist for help. She said: “Your son does not have a problem. You do; you are not like your mother. You can tell him he is going to wear underpants and throw out his diapers and he will be fine.” I followed her advice and he never had an accident again. She made it clear to me that the problem was all mine. I was so afraid of being like my mother that I couldn’t set limits and stick to them. I couldn’t distinguish between being sadistic and helping my son master a developmental task that would make him feel better about himself.


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