There’s a story my mother likes to tell of me as a little tike. The particulars escape me—and I’m not sure they’re even important—but it goes something like this: Whenever I was being an ornery child, unhappy or questioning whatever direction my mother was giving, she would say “I’m the momma and you’re the baby.” End of discussion, that was that. Until one day she asked me to do something for her, something that was typically her responsibility, and I said, “No. You’re the momma, I’m the baby.”
It usually gets a laugh when she tells it.
Anyway, she’s still the momma, and she’ll always say I’m her baby, but, at 31, I’m realizing the dynamic might be shifting, or at least, it will ultimately shift.
My mother is getting older.
Technically, we all are, sure. But lately I feel I’ve started to recognize more of her vulnerabilities and shortcomings. I’ve recently come to understand more will be asked of me and my brother, 26, to take care of her, if not now, or next week, at some point.
She’s the momma; I’m the baby. But I’m also—I don’t know, something else now.
The realization hit me during a recent visit home. My mother was away on a trip to South Africa, so a couple of friends and I had the place to ourselves. But without her there, the state of the four-bedroom house filled with African art truly showed itself to me. Growing up our house wasn’t immaculate, but I’d call it tidy. There were rooms you just didn’t get comfortable in, and Sundays were for capital-C cleaning. But during this visit I was taken aback by the piles upon piles of mail and papers and junk. A fridge full of long-expired food and condiments and bits and pieces. Jumbles of clothes begging to be donated. You get it.
It was a bit overwhelming, and the experience stuck with me. You know how you might see a Volkswagen Beetle on the road every now and then, but then you start dating someone who drives one and all of a sudden you see them everywhere? My realization was a lot like that. I started having conversations with friends and colleagues my age about their own experience with their aging parents. When did they all become hoarders? (I use this term loosely.) Was it always this way? Is it a symptom of something bigger? Not taking care of themselves and their lives in the same way we remembered? A symptom of aging?
But my mother would like you to know something: She is not a hoarder.
“While your friends are talking about it, my friends talk about this, too, but with a completely different tone. Your friends talk about ‘Oh my god, my mom’s aging, and she’s a hoarder, blah, blah, blah,’” she says. “My friends talk about ‘I have so much stuff that I’ve collected over the years, I need to purge and get rid of this junk because I don’t need it. I don’t want it. And there’s no reason for me to have it around me.”
It’s funny to use the guise of journalism as a means to have what ended up being a vulnerable, illuminating, and important conversation with my mother, one I don’t think many people often have with their parents—a conversation I would not have had otherwise.
She spoke clearly and candidly, and with more self awareness than I expected she would about life and time and mortality and happiness. My mother, I should say, is only 64. She’s a black belt in Taekwondo and an award-winning journalist for The Kansas City Star. She’s impressive, thoughtful, witty, badass, and yet, more cognizant than ever about the things she’s losing a grip on in the life she has left to live.
“The time that I have to go through those things or to get rid of those things would be my weekends. And to be honest with you, I don’t want to spend one minute of my free time doing anything that doesn’t bring me joy,” she says.
“I recognize my mortality, and I’m thinking, ‘Do I want to spend my Saturday afternoon going through boxes of paperwork and crap and junk? Or do I want to go hang out in the garage with my buddies, drinking beer, and talking about the problems of the world?’ I think the latter, and you know what? Nobody cares. I’m not gonna be here, I don’t care. So bye, I leave the house as is and go do my thing.”
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say my mother has no qualms about aging, but it occurs to me now that she came to terms with it long before I could even realize it was happening. And, ever the journalist, she made sure to flip the script on me during our talk: Me, contending with her aging, is in part a reflection of my own aging, she says.
Much has been made of how behind millennials are on the rungs of life stages. Broadly speaking, the generation that came of age during the Great Recession aren’t having kids as young, they don’t own property, and they’ve faced set back after set back.
Millennials, in increasingly larger numbers, are now being asked to be caregivers to their parents. One in four family caregivers are millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), according to AARP. Many are part of what’s called the sandwich generation—adults with kids who also bear the responsibility of caring for aging parents.
“I think it’s harder for you than it is for me,” my mother told me, probing.
I’m not in the parent club as of yet, much to my mother’s chagrin. I, like many urban millennials in their late 20s to mid 30s, don’t have kids, and my mother doesn’t yet need me to care for her. It feels as if it puts my cohort in a kind of stasis, and as generations continue to push back the timeline on having children, the younger—from a life stage point of view—they’ll be when it comes time to care for an aging parent.
My mother was just a bit older than I am when she had a similar realization about her dad aging. It’s a little weird to think back on her own parents aging though, she says. Her mother, a woman I never got the chance to meet, died at 60.
“I’ve lived now longer than my mother did. So that also is another smack in my face about mortality,” she says. “But my dad, he used to be this great Jamaican cook, and he fixed everything, and he had the best yard on the street. He was always painting, he always had projects in the house, and did things—fishing all the time. So as he aged, what I noticed is that I would come home and he wasn’t in the kitchen cooking cod fish and ackee. He didn’t cook anymore. I had to cook.”
I don’t really remember my grandfather that well. I can see the front of his house, smell the Jamaican spices mixed with the staleness of old age, and see his face, but he died when I was just 8 years old. He suffered a long and costly battle with diabetes.
“I’m not sure it worried me as deeply as you because by this time, I had already started developing my own family. I felt maybe a little more prepared than you might feel because I was at a different place in my life,” she continues. “I had a husband and I had little you, and so I was now bringing my family to share with him, as opposed to coming home and it being just me thinking ‘holy crap.’”
She’s right: I don’t feel prepared for the responsibility of eventually having to care for my mother. My dad is a different story—he died unexpectedly when I was still in college. He was still, in my mind, Black Superman; there was no moment for me to recognize signs of his aging. No mental lapses. No wrinkles, and no responsibility thrust upon me. He was just my father, not an older version of him.
Hopefully, we’re at least 10-15 years away from me really needing to care for my mother, she says. But there’s something else that’s bothering me, that this conversation has given me the courage to ask. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “Is this all there really is?” Maybe it’s different if you have children, but the way I see it, you go to work, you go home, you live for brief moments of happiness, and if they don’t come, you feel like you’re wasting the time.
It never occurred to me while growing up under my mother’s roof—that she might feel this kind of malaise. It never occurred to me to sincerely ask whether she was happy, and actually listen until now.
“When I was 30 I saw myself at 64, like the number 64, but not the whole head and spiritual and physical 64…I thought that I would be in a different place,” she says. “I thought I would be retired at 64. I thought I would still have my husband when I was 64. I thought we would be traveling. There were all kinds of things I thought 64 would look like. I thought that I would have the same energy I had when I was 30, but I would just be 64, you know? But that’s not really true.
“I’m still the same person, Trey. Happy? I mean, I’m happy with me, I like me. I wish some things were different, that aren’t going to be different. You could spend so much time worrying about what’s not perfect. Then time slips by, and all you did was worry that things weren’t perfect. And they’re never going to be,” she continues. “I think happiness is a moment to moment, day to day kind of thing. It’s not something you sustain. I like me though. I think I’m a pretty awesome, cool individual. I love the way I dress. I’m okay with the way I look at my age. I still think I’m hot—that might be in my head, but so what.”