Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:
My mother lives with me and needs a great deal of attention, as do my four children. It seems as if everyone is pulling at me at once, and I don’t know in which direction to turn first. All this stress has definitely affected my mental and physical health. I suffer from backaches and stomach trouble and lack the patience necessary to be a good wife and mother.
My husband feels the best solution might be to place my mother in a retirement home, but I find the prospect very painful. I don’t think I could live with myself if I did that.
My friends tell me I am a fool and should learn to think of myself rather than allow others to take advantage of me. There are times I am tempted to follow their advice and run off someplace by myself and forget everything.
My Dear Friend:
Many of us, when confronted by difficulties, daydream of flying to some distant land where we can forget all our problems. However, reality dictates there is no escape – for no matter how high or far the plane flies, eventually it must land with the same cargo that was loaded aboard. Therefore, rather than indulging in fantasy, let us try to resolve your problem in a constructive manner.
The greatest joy one can experience comes from being part of a loving family. But as with all gifts, this happiness comes at a price. For example, if you love someone and that person is hurting, you will feel his or her pain, and if you are unable to alleviate the suffering, your anguish will be even more intense. Therefore, I understand your agony over your mother’s infirmity and her inability to care for herself, but I cannot see why you should feel a conflict between caring for her and your children.
To honor and revere your mother is not your responsibility alone, but must be shared by your husband and children as well – and children are never too young to learn that responsibility. To revere, love and care for Bubbie is their privilege and should never be regarded as a burden. Not only should you enlist their aid in being attentive to your mother’s needs, you should make them understand how blessed they are to have a Bubbie living with them. It is a zechus, a great merit, to ease the pain of a grandparent, to divert her with a story or a song and to bring a smile to her face.
One of the outstanding women in Jewish history was Serach, the daughter of Asher. She lived for many centuries, and in the days of King David was renowned as Isha Chachama – the Wise Woman. Why was she granted this awesome honor? What was unique about her? Why was she so special?
She would comfort her Zeyda, the patriarch Jacob, by singing to him and offering words of consolation and hope. “Od Yosef chai” — “Joseph still lives” – she would sing again and again after Jacob was shown Joseph’s bloody coat. It was for having performed this great mitzvah of honoring and comforting her grandfather that she was granted her incredible longevity and wisdom.
Not every family has the merit of caring for elderly grandparents, so instead of resenting the mitzvah, teach your children to embrace it with love.
Long after your mother is called by G-d, your children will remember those special years when Grandma was part of their lives, and that is a treasure no one will ever be able to take from them. The best way to train children is through example. If you wish your children to feel the joy of the presence of their grandmother, then you and your husband will have to show them the way. Through your attitude you will have to demonstrate that to care for your mother is a privilege you wouldn’t barter for anything in the world.
Once you make your children active participants in this family responsibility, their resentment will disappear. Instead of feeling put upon, they will feel honored and want to give of themselves, and through that giving they will become better people. And one day, when old age catches up with you and your husband, your children will remember the love you showered on their Bubbie and, with G-d’s help, will impart the same to you.
As far as your friends are concerned, don’t let their opinions bother you. They are just parroting the meaningless words in vogue nowadays: “Think of your own happiness; don’t let anyone take advantage of you.” Can honoring one’s parents be regarded as being taken advantage of? What happiness can you have if your mother is hurting? Do your friends imagine you are a machine without a conscience who can simply block your mother out of your heart and mind?
Now, I do not minimize the sacrifice that is demanded of you, but we are a nation that has lived by these sacrifices – parents living for their children, and children, in turn, living for their parents. That’s what life is all about. Giving. The bottom line remains: if you inspire your family to join you in honoring Bubbie, that which at first glance seemed to cause a conflict will act as a catalyst to unite your household.
I can assure you that Bubbie will forever be enshrined in the hearts of your children as a legacy of love.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis