Here’s some nostalgia for ya, gentle readers!
My dad, who was completely AB for the record, lived alone in the home I now own, and for a good portion of my life had many of his needs taken care of by members of his immediate family. My Grammy did most of his laundry, unless my aunt happened to be there doing laundry on Dad’s laundry day. My aunt, who was a book keeper for the family business, handled Dad’s bank account; she paid his bills for him back in the days prior to auto bill pay and signed most of his checks (most of my birthday cards suspiciously looked as if they may have been signed by her as well, to this day I can not tell their writing apart in some instances). It isn’t that my Dad couldn’t take care of himself or wasn’t an adult, but that they just simply did it for him after my parents divorced and he was living alone. Of course, Dad did things in return for Grammy, like grocery shopping and yard work after she wasn’t able to do it for herself…but that is another story for another day. Some people talk about ‘love languages’, and this is one spoken by this side of my family.
I don’t know that my aunt resented having that responsibility. I don’t know if any of Dad’s other siblings, all married with kids, resented this arrangement. I don’t really care, because it was something that was worked out between them, whether spoken or unspoken. There was, more than likely, a lot of traditional and gendered reasons why this arrangement took place. It also maybe had a bit to do with my grandmother being widowed, my Dad being her only child that was single and living alone, and who had the time to spend with her, taking her to Senior Breakfasts and stopping in for coffee in the morning after his night shift. It worked for them.
Perhaps this is why, when I read this letter sent to Emily Yoffe, AKA Dear Prudence, at Slate Magazine which was passed on to me by s.e. smith, I am inclined to find the myself rolling my eyes at the letter writer (emphasis mine):
Q. Reston, Va.: I have a 30-ish sibling with a health issue that has prevented him from working for the past four years. My parents support him—his own townhouse, car, new clothes, food, medicine, etc. They do everything for him (laundry, groceries, errands, etc.) Although his illness is real, he also spends a lot of time on his social life (out on the weekends, going to bars, etc.) and dates. In contrast, my wife and I (who live 10 minutes away) are trying very hard to stay afloat in this economy with small children, a house we paid for on our own, cars we paid for on our own, etc. We don’t receive much help (even babysitting). I can’t help but feel as though I am penalized for being functional, and I feel a great deal of animosity toward my family. Now, my parents are starting to ask me to help out my “poor” brother more, when my own family is already stretched incredibly thin for time/money. If it were up to me, I’d tell my brother to start acting like an adult and do more for himself. My parents would be horrified and upset. Any advice for getting through this tactfully?
Yes, yes. My brother has more than me! And he didn’t have to work for it! It’s not fair! (Sorry, I had a flashback to… well… my whole childhood.) I would love to be him, with all the damned free time and cool stuff and the devotion of my parents!
Too bad that the special perks come with strings. In my Dad’s case it was solitude and possibly depression, which I won’t pretend didn’t show in his demeanor. In the case of Reston, Va.’s brother, it comes with unspecified (thankfully he had the tact to leave this personal info out) medical conditions. We really don’t know the extent of them. We don’t know how much mobility this person has, how it impacts his daily life, if the reason he can’t work is due to pain, or what the disability is. This is mostly because it isn’t our damned business, but the point is that the grass isn’t always greener. Sometimes it is just sod.
Our good friend Reston, Va.’s brother isn’t being a Good Cripple, either. While his parents are doting on him for whatever their personal reasons are, he has the nerve to want to have a social life. He even goes to bars! We all know that bar ALWAYS means loud, rowdy club where every person is inebriated from imbibing in copious amounts of cereal malt beverages until wee hours of the morning, and never a quiet place where people can sit, talk, perhaps enjoy quiet music and a couple of cocktails or just a sandwich and the [insert sports team] game. There is quite a huge difference.
Reston, Va. wants to define the terms of what adult behavior is, and the hard truth is that “adult” doesn’t mean the same thing for every person. Having 2.3 children, a house, and a car while punching a time clock every day isn’t the universal litmus test. I read this letter as more of a cry that Mummy and Daddy aren’t babysitting more often so that he can go out once and a while or aren’t helping him with expenses than anything else.
Needless to say, I was not impressed with Prudie’s answer (again, emphasis mine):
A: If your brother is capable of hanging out at bars and going out on dates, I’m wondering why he’s not capable of doing his own laundry and getting his own groceries. It sounds as if despite his real problems, your parents are only exacerbating his dependency. They’re probably worried about when they’re no longer around and are trying to line you up to fill in for them.
You need to have a talk with your parents about the present and the future. Explain that despite his illness, it would be beneficial for the entire family if your brother took more responsibility for himself. You can say you love your brother, but you don’t have the financial or emotional resources to take care of him, and you in fact think more energy needs to go into helping him be a productive member of society. If they don’t want to hear your message, that’s their business. But you need to make sure they hear yours that you can’t take him on.
I am irritated to no end the way that Prudie here equates the ability to do laundry and grocery shop with being a “productive member of society”. Also, the way that it is obvious that one activity is the same as another, and that obviously if the brother is able to do one, since she can so capably glean from the letter exactly what the brother’s limitations are, he must be able to do all the others. Clearly, being disabled means that we must sit at home, in the dark, crying about how miserable we are if we are to ask anyone for any kind of help.
Prudie might be shocked to hear that PWDs are not all forcibly sterilized anymore (though it still happens) and that many of us manage to *gasp* have sex lives. Some of us manage to accidentally enjoy ourselves with full, meaningful social calendars.
But that doesn’t negate our need for accessibility, assistance, and actual empathy. Which she lacks. But based on the letter I see her, she won’t be lonely.
I fully support this letter writer setting boundaries for what he is willing to take on with regards to the care of his brother, especially since, honestly, it seems that he is more worried about what he is not getting that is equal to or greater than his brother’s benefits. I wouldn’t want to be cared for by someone who didn’t want to be part of my life or who would begrudge me having something that gave me moments of happiness. I don’t want people like that close to me. It is why people are afraid to have Facebook pages or interact publicly: the policing of what PWDs should be allowed to do is so rampant that they even lose benefits because they aren’t disabled enough in public. Boundaries are important on both sides, though, to protect everyone, and Reston, Va. is under no obligation to hurt himself or his family financially to care for his brother.
Yoffe was so off base in her response, though, that she was holding a puck when the first pitch went out.
Also worth noting is that has seemed to leave the brother out of this conversation altogether. Everyone seems to want to talk about him and his needs, how helping him will affect them, but I see no mention of talking to him about what he actually needs or wants. It is completely possible that Reston, Va.’s brother would prefer to get his own groceries or that he doesn’t need his socks folded, it is just that no one has bothered to ask.
Turned out that during all those years my Dad was able to balance a checkbook after all. He let my aunt do it because it made her feel like she was taking care of him because he was alone, since my Dad’s family is fairly close-knit. They did things like that for each other, not because the other couldn’t do them, but because they cared for each other, and that is how some people show it.