Becoming a Parent for Your Parent

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several readers answered the adulthood question by recalling the time they had to become a caretaker for someone who once raised them. Here’s Kate Hutton:

I’m steadily approaching 28, and I thought I was an adult when I got my first “real” job—salary, benefits, a commute to complain about—at 25. Turns out I was wrong. I don’t think I was truly an adult until I had to take care of my parents. Moving back in with my mom to help her through a new disability, staying by my father’s side through a week at the hospital, burying him unexpectedly—all in the span of a few months. You do a lot of growing up when you transition from being taken care of to a caretaker.

Another reader prefers that we “please post this anonymously so as to preserve my father’s privacy.” She recalls a grisly experience:

I think that I finally became an adult when my dad got very sick last year, when I was 25.

Previously, I had been through college, graduate school, and my first year of full-time employment and lived on my own. I had always paid my own bills and been generally self-supporting, but I relied on my parents a lot for emotional support and help with daily things, like knowing when to take my car to the mechanic or how to deal with difficult landlords. I suffer with a lot of anxiety, so I’ve been pretty emotionally needy at times.

I moved back in with my parents for a few months while I looked for an apartment. During this time, my dad—who had generally been in denial about his diabetes despite desperate pleas for him to seek medical care—took a turn for the worse. He burned his foot on a space heater, and the sore (which he kept hidden from us) slowly worsened from sore to infection to gangrene. The smell of his foot became unbearable and we realized how truly ill he was. We soon realized what was going on despite his secrecy and begged him to go to the doctor, but he violently refused.

Then one night I came downstairs and he was shivering so badly he couldn’t speak in complete phrases. I’ve never seen someone so ill in my life. It was so raw and horrific that I felt like he was slipping away as I watched. The instinct of “I need a real adult to handle this situation” kicked in, so I went to find my mother, but I soon realized that she needed me as much as I needed her. She too was paralyzed by his anger and our own fear for his life. We joined forces, begging, threatening, and bargaining with him to go to the hospital.

After an hour of screaming (between shivers and gasps), he caved in and agreed to go to the hospital. When he finally arrived, he had a temperature of 105. He was diagnosed with sepsis from the gangrene and part of his foot was amputated.

In the months that followed, he still resisted many lifestyle changes that doctors asked him to make. My mother and I had to present a united front and often had to fight with both my father and his doctors. For the first time, I realized that my parents were not in a position to handle my trivial emotional, physical, and lifestyle baggage, and so I wanted to protect them from it. I finally felt like whatever happened in my life was my own problem to solve, and also that I was capable of handling it.

Luckily my father has since recovered and my parents are doing okay again, but something in me changed that night. I handle my own issues to a much greater extent. I’ve since moved out and purchased my own home. I don’t feel like an “emerging adult” anymore; I’ve become a full adult.

A 53-year-old reader shares the “one moment that stands out in my mind” about becoming a true adult:

It was around 2009, when my mother had to move from one assisted living facility to another. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time, so in a nutshell, I had to lie to her to get her in the car. The new facility had a lock-down unit, which was then the only practical option for her. It was not the first time I had told her a “white lie” in order to get her to do something, the way you might tell a child. But it was the only time I can recall when she realized I had lied to her, tricking her into leaving her apartment. She gave me a look of realization that I will never forget.

I was once married but never had children. I suppose if I had ever had children, I would have “become an adult” at some point during the parenting experience. Maybe there are certain “micro-betrayals” that go along with being responsible for someone. I don’t know. I prefer to remain ignorant about that.