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As They Get Older, Why Don’t We Give Our Parents The Same Freedom We Fought So Hard For?

Posted: September 10, 2020
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Do adult children have a right to tell elderly parents what they can or cannot do with their lives, even if it is out of love? 

Do we realize how we inadvertently take away our parents’ autonomy and the right to decide how to live their lives once they reach a certain age, just because as children we think we know better and we’re doing it for their good?

Do we realize how we used to rebel against this very attitude from our parents, when they used to make decisions for us thinking they knew what was best for us, even when we wanted something different?

When the parent-child roles are reversed, why do we forget how we felt and repeat the same toxic cycle instead of treating our parents the way we wanted them to treat us? We wanted them to trust our decisions, give us the freedom and autonomy to live our lives on our terms. But why do we deny that to our parents when they get old?

An Epiphany

My parents are both doctors who run a clinic. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, I was so panicked about them being senior citizens and still working in such a situation that I was practically forcing them to close down the clinic every time I talked to them on the phone. They refused, kept saying they would decide according to the situation, and there was nothing to worry about. They were forced to close it during the lockdown, which was a relief to me.

Then my father passed away a few months ago of complications related to cancer. My mother was distraught, losing her partner of more than 50 years. They met as students in medical college in the 70s, got married, and have lived and worked together ever since.

My mother resumed work 40 days after my dad’s demise. She goes to two clinics, one in the morning and visits as a consultant in the evening at my father’s clinic. Many of my dad’s patients still didn’t know that he was no more and continued taking appointments to see him (and her) so she goes there out of sentimental reasons, saying she doesn’t want to close the clinic so soon after his death.

She then told us that she would like to leave both clinics next year, hand it over to other doctors, and shift to their own home (now they stay at a house provided by the hospital in a nearby town).

She is in Kerala and refused to come stay with me in Bangalore as of now saying she wants to stay with dad’s memories at their house for a few more years at least. I understood that.

But when she said she would like to continue working, maybe open a clinic of her own near our home, because she can’t imagine sitting at home without working, because being a doctor is a big part of her identity, I blew a fuse. I didn’t want her to continue working because she’s going to be 70 soon and especially because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A daughter’s concern vs a mother’s right

My reaction stemmed from the POV of a daughter wanting to keep my mother safe from the pandemic and also a guilt of my mother working outside while I could safely work from home inside. But I forgot all about her identity, her wishes, and her right to make decisions for her own life. I was also feeling a

She held her ground but finally agreed to stay at home for a few months after resigning from here and start working only after the pandemic blows over.

But I was still asking why? Why can’t you just relax and sit at home? Come stay with me in Bangalore? Enjoy the company of your grandson? Or even just be at home in Kerala without going to work but stay busy with other things (she has her sister and other relatives nearby and likes to go temples, does mantra chanting daily, reads books, watches movies, etc.) Be like other grandmothers?

She insisted she wanted to work as long as she was capable. It’s not about the money. It’s about a feeling of purpose and meaning and identity.

A lightbulb moment from a feminist perspective

Today, I was reading The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and a lightbulb suddenly went off in my head. And I felt so ashamed of myself.

I had the audacity to try to take away from another woman her right to decide for herself how to live her life. How could I call myself a feminist then?

So what if she was my mother?

So what if she was going to be 70 years old?

And as much as it worried me, so what if there was a pandemic outside?

After all, she had raised two kids with no extended family nearby in both Nigeria and Kerala, had given birth to my brother in Nigeria, navigating the postpartum phase with just my father and a few good friends by her side, always juggled work and children and the household, had treated thousands of people over the years, had the capability and competence to bring hundreds of babies into the world without harm to them or their mothers through either normal or Cesarean deliveries, had looked after my father through his years of cancer, and had lived through her own years of cancer with formidable strength and dignity.

Don’t decide for them!

Who am I to tell this strong, capable, intelligent, independent woman what to do with her life just because now her husband is no more and she is going to be 70 and there’s a pandemic?

I have had many people tell me, ”oh so now you will be bringing your mother to your house in Bangalore” without so much as asking her what she wants. Because they assume that all women would want that.

Why do we automatically assume we have the right to tell women how to live their lives, or know what is good for them, especially when they become grandmothers or their husbands die?

I understand now maybe 1/10th of what my parents might have gone through when letting me take my own decisions and watching me live my life on my terms even when they wanted to continue protecting me.

It is hard, trusting a loved one to make choices for themselves, but I am learning to do it now, with my mother as my teacher and just a prayer that she will be looked after!

Image source: shutterstock

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Karishma has been writing short stories since she was 8 and poetry since she was

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