Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a 62-year-old social worker who needs the weekend to recuperate from the stresses of her job—but who is, in her sons’ eyes, obligated to be her grandchildren’s babysitter in her free time.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am a social worker in a state where the people are really having a hard time. I work my 40 hours for salary, then another 10 because it is the right thing to do. I know I make a difference, and my work and my co-workers are really a big part of my life.
I am a widow living alone in a small townhouse. It is a peaceful haven for me. My two sons are grown and married. Both live within 30 minutes of my home. My sons and their wives have busy work lives and social lives, and now I am expected to become the weekend babysitter. I am not much of a small-child person, and my townhouse, with its stairs and lots of glass tables, is not especially child-friendly. I don’t even have a second bed. The small room that was a bedroom is now my exercise room
I have hobbies and friends, and at 62, I need to use the weekends to recover from my workweek. I don’t have the energy to manage a very active 18-month-old and a 3-year-old. Financially I will have to continue to work after I am forced to retire at 65, so I may never have lots of time for babysitting. I know I sound crabby, but I was a stay-at-home mom until my younger son was in sixth grade, and then I went to work in the criminal courts part time. I went to school to finish a master’s degree at the same time I was running a house, taking care of my sons, and working part time. My husband was ill for five years with cancer and died shortly after my younger son went to college. I supported them through college; they are both doing well professionally now and have very nice wives and lives. I have enough savings so that I won’t ever be a burden for my children financially, as long as I keep working until I am 70.
All my friends tell me that I am missing out on the best time of life: grandmotherhood. I just can’t do it. I feel terrible guilt about this problem, but I also feel that I need my weekend time to recover and have some adult fun. I would like to see my sons with their children two or three times a month, and would enjoy family Sunday dinners. How am I going to explain to my sons that I can’t give them more than I have?
Dr. Ford Responds:
From what you have told me, it seems that you have reached a time in your life when you have a satisfying career, freedom from financial anxiety, and a pleasant social life. You describe your apartment as a haven as well, so it seems you have achieved a nice balance. However, all of this has been hard-won—most of your life you have been a caretaker, and an overburdened one at that. It’s not surprising that you would like a respite from this role at this time of your life.
It’s hardly surprising that you don’t feel more entitled to your feelings. Women in our culture are supposed to “naturally” love little children—hence your friends’ comments and expectations. But even if you love your grandchildren, as you do, that does not mean you relish spending your precious free time and energy babysitting.
Meanwhile, your children have expectations that you are free to do this, and you have complied. Is this because you cannot break away from your lifelong role, and/or you don’t want to disappoint them? You are obviously a responsible person, who spends extra time at work to do things the right way. Your choice of profession involves taking care of others; people who go into the helping professions often are motivated by personality characteristics of generosity and concern for others’ needs. But even with the extra time you put in, you can leave the job at the office and return at night to your “haven.” And because your work requires you to give of yourself in this way—to people whom you describe as having a really hard time—you clearly need this time and space, especially since you did without it for so long.
Try to explain this situation to your children, emphasizing the ways in which you do enjoy seeing them and the grandchildren. Also make the point that your wish to continue working is because you are thinking of them, being motivated by your plan to remain independent and not burden them in the future. You have probably done such a good job of being a generous caretaker all these years that this may come as something of a surprise at first, and since it is going against your lifelong tendency to do for others first, taking this stand may require some concerted effort. It may also take some effort to “stay on track”: both you and your sons may slip into the old habits, so be on guard.
You have worked hard and waited a long time for your “freedom.” I would encourage you to recognize that you are more than entitled to feel as you do. and that your choice is not selfish but rather self-enhancing, something you’ve had precious little time for until now.