parent opinion

'I feel expected to manage it all.' We need to talk about the mental load of "daughtering."

“Do you need me to come home?” I ask my mum, as I hear the worry in her voice. My dad is not well again, and for the third time in as many years, the doctor has recommended that she get all of us kids to come home to see him.

Luckily, this wasn’t the end of the line after all. My dad pulled through and is back at home now. He is in a wheelchair after a hip fracture, is a double amputee, with diabetes, a heart condition and a host of other health issues.

For the past 10 years, my mother has been very strong, being the main person to deal with dad’s doctors, arrange hospital visits, take him to the physio while they help him learn to walk again, sit by his side for months during hospital stays, schedule the specialists, push wheelchairs, and be the sole carer for her husband of more than 50 years.

In sickness and in health, indeed.

WATCH: Things Mothers never hear. Post continues below.

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Before dad’s illness, our relationship was a bit more one sided. I would call for advice, to ask for help (or ahem… money), and she would be there for me.

Once dad got sick, I realised that I needed to step up and offer more support to the woman who was dealing with the day-to-day grind of caring for a very ill husband.

My mum isn’t one to cry, rage or complain about anything she has to do. She takes things one day at a time, which I really admire. But I can see that it is essential for her to have my siblings and I to talk to, and to lean on, during this phase of her life. The fact that all of her kids live more than 400km away from her makes the telephone feel like a lifeline.

This feeling of role reversal as we age is very common in mother-daughter relationships. A US study published in the Journal of Family Communication identified ‘daughtering’ as another type of mental load that women have to cope with.

Essentially, there are responsibilities that we as daughters feel expected to manage, and then we evaluate ourselves on whether we are hitting the mark. We might feel under self-imposed pressure to be the ideal daughter for our ageing mother.

The study outlines four ways that ‘daughtering’ is evaluated by the daughter herself, and by society at large:

  • Do I respect what mum has to say, and avoid conflict where possible?
  • Am I able to protect mum’s well being and keep her safe?
  • Do I allow her to mother me, asking her advice or getting her approval for my decisions?
  • Do I make time for mum, and connect with her through phone calls and visits?

Have you listened to our daily podcast The Quicky? We’ve got an episode all about managing the mental load of mothering. Post continues after audio.

While the study focuses on the mother-daughter relationship, I’m sure many women feel the same sense of responsibility for their ageing fathers. Many women say it’s even the case with their father-in-law, as women tend to fall into the caregiver role.

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It wasn’t until I read about this concept of daughtering that I realised how much my relationship with my mother has changed over the last 10 years.

After speaking with some close friends, it seems that I’m not alone in noticing this shift.

Kate says that many years ago, her mother spent a night calling every hostel in a coastal town, as Kate had failed to check in with her while backpacking overseas. When her mum took a trip to Asia recently, it was Kate on the phone constantly checking that her mother was safe and not taking any unnecessary risks.

Hazel’s mother helped her move house time and time again while she was younger and living in share accommodation. These days, Hazel is researching retirement village options for her mother, while also considering the idea that she may even ask her mum to move in with her.

Now instead of my mum checking in on me, I want to call her often and just see how they’re doing. I worry about them if I haven’t heard from them in a while.

If she has some information to share about dad (such as his latest test results) I’ll often then pass that on to my siblings so that she doesn’t have to call everyone to relay the message four times.

While dad is not sick enough to need full-time care from nurses, it all falls to my mum who is in her seventies with her own health to consider (lifting wheelchairs to place in and out of the boot is not an easy task!). She doesn’t get a break, yet she doesn’t make a fuss or say ‘poor me’. That’s why caring for the carer is so important.

So if that means I fly to her on my own for a weekend visit, to just drink coffee and talk about other things; or chat on the phone every day when dad is in hospital; or take the kids to her in the holidays to spend some time catching up; then I am more than happy to take on my ‘daughtering’ role.

It’s time for me to do a bit of mothering for my mother.

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