Our society is deeply invested in upholding a cultural myth that all mothers know instinctively how to nurture and love. They don't.

Ask the Bitches: I Was Guilted Into Caring for a Sick, Abusive Parent for Years. Now What?

We’ve been talking a lot recently about unequal circumstances. Some people, through no fault of their own, have a harder time achieving financial independence than others. This is why the “anyone can do it,” one-size-fits-all success narrative is harmful and exclusionary.

This question is a good example of one such set of circumstances. This came to us from an anonymous Tumblr follower.

“Bitches I need advice, I have never had a job because I was guilted into caring for an emotionaly abusive sick mother right out of high school. I am twenty three and have no idea what to go into now that I am free. I’m mostly afraid of going to school because I don’t have any money, but I have no idea what jobs I can get without an education! I don’t want to work in fast food and retail until I’m thirty, please tell me you can advise this poor bitch :(“

A poor bitch indeed. Oh, my sweet child of winter.

My poor child of winter.

You have opened the door to my heart, and also my memories. Because I, too, spent a precious chunk of my young adulthood doing the exact same thing.

I ask myself why I did it all the time. The only real answer is that there is immense social pressure on children to care for their ill parents—particularly daughters. Friends and family members I hadn’t spoken with in years (or ever) tracked me down. They got my phone number from my mother, or found me on social media, and twisted my arm until it broke. I was too young and inexperienced to tell them to fuck off.

I share these details because I want you to know that you are not alone, and you will never be alone. Abusive and toxic people are very good at turning illness to their advantage. Their greedy hearts are fed by the sympathy and attention, and they will manipulate the situation to get what they want from you.

And the people who were absent? Who enabled them? Looked the other way? They’re tumbling out of the woodwork like termites to volunteer you for the job they don’t want to perform themselves.

Words you may need to hear

First I’ll tell you some things I wish someone had told me at the time. It sounds like you may be past the point of really needing these, but I’m going to say them anyway because they’re true.

If we have any other young readers who’ve been pressured to care for an ailing family member—particularly an abusive one—please read and reflect upon the following statements.

  • An abusive person doesn’t stop being abusive just because they’re sick.
  • A sick person does not automatically become more mature, more wise, or more worthy of forgiveness just because they’re sick.
  • Your parent is an autonomous adult and so are you. Whatever sacrifices your parents made to raise children was their choice. You get to make your own choices.
  • You don’t have to justify your choices to anyone. That includes why you aren’t close to your family, or why you won’t be their primary caretaker.
  • Our society is deeply invested in upholding a cultural myth that all mothers know instinctively how to nurture, love, and provide. They don’t.
  • Some people will even feel threatened if you challenge that myth. But their ignorance is their problem.
  • You’re not automatically strong enough to carry a sick person just because you are not sick.
  • Your mental health is not less important than another person’s physical health. The distinction between physical health and mental health is a cultural construct irrelevant to the body.
  • No young person is prepared for the immense task of caretaking. They have little experience with the financial, logistical, and life-and-death medical choices a caretaker must make.
  • If your only qualifications are (1) blood relation and (2) relatively few commitments, you are wildly unqualified for that job. And anyone who asked you to do it anyway was, and is, an asshole.
  • One day you might look back on this and regret allowing yourself to be used this way. If that happens, don’t beat yourself up. Channel that regret into growth. Use this experience to learn to erect the boundaries you need to be happy and free.
  • You are amazing and brave.
  • Your mother is a fuckstick and anyone who participated in railroading you into this is AFS (also a fuckstick).

Okay, with that stuff out of the way…

My advice to you

A lot of my advice depends on what you want to do professionally. If you want to be a cardiologist, you have to find a way go to college. If you want to be a tennis instructor, you might not. So I’m just gonna throw shit at you in the hope that something sticks!

Recognize that you are special

My favorite childhood book was about a unicorn. This unicorn travels all over the world trying to find a weapon that can defeat undefeatable monsters. He almost gives up, because he feels like he’s not making any progress, and he bows his head in defeat while standing in front of a fire. By doing this, he unknowingly tempers his horn, transforming it into the weapon he seeks—though it takes him two more books to realize it and figure out how to wield it against those monsters.

You don’t realize it yet either, but all the hardships you’ve gone through have tempered you. Some people shatter under pressure. You won’t. It will take you years to understand and master that advantage, but resiliency is the ultimate weapon.

Others may have had a head start. So what? You’re still going to blast past them, because you have an advantage that can’t be sought, bought, given, or learned from a book.

Think about what you want to do with your life

If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, that’s totally okay. Two tips.

First: Play the Dollar Bill Game, which I describe here and here. It might help you articulate what you need and want out of life.

Second: Don’t think about it as, “Where do I start?” Reframe it as, “Where do I go next?”

Life is a river, babycakes, and you’re already swimming in it! Currents will carry you to far-flung and unexpected places. You are very likely to change your career several times over your lifetime. Don’t pressure yourself to get it perfect on your first try. And don’t listen to the voice in your head that tells you you’re hopelessly far behind everybody else. Because spoiler alert: nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Ask for help

Everywhere I’ve worked I’ve seen nepotism in the form of people’s kids and friends’ kids getting hired into entry level roles. Get in on that action.

If you have trusted adults in your life—teachers, family members, the parents of friends—talk to them. Ask them if there are any openings where they work. Ask for help from anyone who’ll listen. Blast it on social media. You deserve a champion.

Also, investigate if you qualify for any kind of government assistance.

Go to school

If you want to go to school, you can go to school. Schools want warm bodies with tuition money (they could probably take or leave the warm part, come to think of it). They won’t care that you’re a few years older than usual.

Just be really cautious about how much debt you take on. Education is a huge investment of time and money. Don’t commit to more education unless you have a specific career path in mind that requires it.

Talk to people who are on that career path now. If you think you want to be a nurse, join a FB group of nursing professionals and ask them, “Hey, these are my interests and skills—do you think nursing is right for me? How are employment prospects and pay in this area?” Give that candid feedback more weight than you do glossy college brochures.

Find a job that doesn’t require college, but is still better than retail

If you think long and hard and decide that school isn’t in your best interest right now, there are other options.

Certain segments of the service industry are objectively better than others. If you feel stuck in your career, look for roles you could advance into that have better hours or earning potential. For example, if food service is your best option, figure out what you have to do to get out of bussing and into bartending.

You can consider starting your own business. That’s what I did when I couldn’t find work during the recession: I offered dirt-cheap graphic design services to local businesses who didn’t have the scratch for big companies. Same for my friends who started photography and dog walking companies around the same time.

In some fields, nobody cares about your education level, they just want to know if you can do the job. Others only require a two year degree. Many make respectable money.

Put “full time caregiver” on your resume

Gone are the days when being a full-time caregiver is something to hide. There is a growing realization that the skills and fortitude required for this role are transferable and valuable.

You want to work for someone who hears your story and thinks, “Wow, what an incredible young person. If she can handle caring for an ailing parent at such a young age, there’s nothing in this admin role that she can’t handle.” That won’t be everyone, but it also won’t be no one.

Work your cover letter

Hiring managers are people with feelings. Play upon them.

Own your narrative. But don’t sell it like it’s a sob story, keep it optimistic and tie it into the job. Say something like…

“I have a nontraditional background. Circumstances forced me to put college plans aside to care for an ailing parent. I had to take on many responsibilities that were beyond my skills or experience, but I found I was able to rise to meet those challenges. I am confident that I can translate this experiential learning into my career as a Whatever. I’m eager to get to work and start delivering value for WhateverCorp.”

Settle… temporarily

When it comes to entry level jobs, sometimes you have to take something not-great as a stepping stone. You can sell it any way you need to further down the line.

If you were a bricklayer, and you hated it, you could keep the job for six months. Then put “strong command of applied geometric mathematics” as a skill on your resume and hop, hop, hop like a bunny into something better.

Same goes for salary. Set a salary you’d like to make, and look within that range for a set amount of time. If nothing comes of it, give yourself a break, then lower that threshold and start again. Lowball if you have to just to get something on your resume. You will make it up later by changing jobs frequently.

Volunteer

It sounds like you have time now that you didn’t before. Volunteering occasionally would be a great way to spend that time. You’ve been forced to be charitable for so long that you might’ve forgotten how good it can feel when it’s voluntary. It could be soul-healing. Plus, volunteering is a great way to round out your resume and meet new people.

Move

Finally, I think you should strongly consider moving to a new town. Maybe you can’t do it right away. But think about it. Because I think you deserve a fresh start.

A big portion of the joy of college is just getting away from the identity that you grew up with. If you were stuck being the dutiful daughter in high school, you may find yourself blossoming into a new role.

I like the phrase “grow where you are planted.” Your age is the perfect time to find richer, deeper soil than the sidewalk crack you’re in right now.

If you cannot move, at the very least, you must practice defining and defending boundaries when it comes to your family. You are an adult now. If they want a relationship with you, let it be on your terms.

Other resources

The second you can afford it, get therapy. You’ve earned it. You have a quarter century of nonsense to process.

For now, find free things to read that can validate your own experience.

Emily Yoffe has written quite a lot about this topic. You can start with reading her essay called The Debt. I really appreciate Yoffe’s perspective because she can keenly articulate all the ways that society’s “forgive and forget” imperative aids abusers and denies victims. Paula Span is also great, especially The Undeserving Parent.

In general, be careful about reading or listening to advice written by people who haven’t been in your situation. It is incredibly easy for armchair moralists to tell you “she’s your mother,” as though this erases all of your pain. It doesn’t, so don’t buy it.

And most importantly…

Remember that you’ve likely already done the hardest thing you may ever have to do in your life. Buy some small paper umbrellas and put them inside every drink you drink for the next ten years, because you’ve earned it. And you are going to be okay.

Everyone else, remember that this is one of the many possible human stories behind low-wage workers and people without college degrees. Treat low wage workers kindly and respectfully, tip them wellvote with their interests in mind, and defend them against those who demean their worth as people.

Now walk away, strong and frugal.

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11 thoughts on “Ask the Bitches: I Was Guilted Into Caring for a Sick, Abusive Parent for Years. Now What?

  1. Read “Your Turn for Care”. This book is so, so helpful, even though you already went through the caring for an abusive parent. It helped me so much, as someone who has abusive family but hasn’t had to do any end-of-life care yet, and I believe it may still help you as well. If nothing else, it will validate you and your feelings, and tell you that it is okay that you feel this way – however way it is.

    I had to drop out of university to accept a low-paying customer service job in a wholly different country (I’m in Europe) just to get away from my family. You are not alone in struggling, and while we may not have taken the same path exactly, know that there are many of us out here. We survive. We persevere. We prosper. One step at a time.

    You are not alone. You will be okay. You can do this.

  2. Get it, girl! I didn’t have to care for my mother, but she was still not great to deal with. I can’t imagine being guilted into caring for her.

    I agree – go to school for as cheap as you can! Hit up scholarships and local organizations like the Rotary Club. They would love to help after hearing your story. Opt for community college for basic courses while you work part-time. Then transfer to a 4-year degree school.

  3. This was such an amazing blog post with a lot of actionable tips for people who are getting into the job market for the first time. I’d definitely second the volunteering tip. Sure, it won’t give you money right off the bat, but it’s a high possibility it’ll boost your CV. That being said, I am so happy to discover more and more feminist-oriented blogs in the FI sphere. The more people add to the conversation, the more people will realise that there is, indeed, not just one answer for everyone.

  4. First: FREEEEEDOOOOOMMMMM.

    That cannot be emphasized enough. I’m in the process of disengaging from a sucktastic, manipulative user parent who I supported for the past ohhh 18 years so while it totally sucks you are starting afresh, I’m so glad for you that you’re still only 23. There are so many years still for you to take what you’ve dealt with and be motivated to do way better for yourself now that you’re not bogged down by abusive parent care.
    When I was 17, I trained a lovely lady in her 50s who was working at my workplace in her first job ever. I felt so bad for her – everything was incredibly hard for her because she’d spent exactly zero days in the work world for her entire adult life and when she left her loveless marriage, she was also feeling very adrift.
    Volunteering is a great way to test the waters if you can afford to, but so is getting an entry level type job to keep your bills paid while you figure it out.
    If you’d like to go to school there may be work study jobs available to you that are worth looking into. I do advise you against using any college-based job advice though, usually their advise is pallid if not downright terrible. For great advice, I refer you to the fabulous Alison Green of Ask a Manager. Her site is priceless for getting a handle on what’s good in a workplace and what’s terrible. It’s hard to know this when you’re first coming into a professional environment and her site has so much good information you’d be really well equipped after spending some time there. Just don’t get lost in the comments 😉

    1. Condragulations on your own disentanglement! In my experience, it took a long time to feel really good about my choice, because it’s sooooo hard to unlearn the habit of putting yourself second. But once I did, I felt freer and lighter than ever before.

      I second the Ask a Manager recommendation, and echo its value. Whenever I read her questions, my advice to the problem-haver would be “YOU ARE A POWERFUL FAE SORCERESS SO FLIP SOME MOTHERFUCKIN’ TABLES UNTIL YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT.” But then I read Alison’s response and I’m like “oh, yes, no, do that instead.”

  5. Awesome post. As another person who struggles with his role in taking care of others in his family, it’s really helpful to read through this article and be reminded that I, too, am a person with options, who isn’t ‘obligated’ to do anything. I can choose.

    “You don’t realize it yet either, but all the hardships you’ve gone through have tempered you.”

    Loved this. If there is a silver lining to having to endure bad shit, it’s that we often get unique strengths as a result of those hardships.

    1. Totally agreed. I’m someone who doesn’t plan to have children at this point, and I am shocked by how many people respond to this information with “but who will take care of you when you’re old?” This is as bizarre to me as birthing a child so it will grow up to become your car mechanic, or your real estate agent. Caregiving requires a very specific set of skills, education, and temperament that not everyone has. And there ain’t no shame in that!

  6. It is so true that people like me, who had every imaginable advantage, tend to see the world through our own eyes when the world looks very different to someone who didn’t have awesome parents and has to struggle against much tougher odds. I’d recommend checking out community colleges as a place to start. And if you are a natural at care giving there are certificate programs at some community colleges in that area, and the money can be decent for providing in home care to seniors. Likewise if you are gifted at learning tech many community colleges provide a fast track for obtaining a registered nurse degree which is a high earning field with a lot of ability to grow, but the course work is challenging and not everyone can master it. The big plus for community colleges is most of the students attend virtually for free, with out any student loans, if they are coming from a low income background. Good luck, the fact that you are taking charge of your life in a positive way makes you a success already.

  7. Many state colleges/unis provide tuition assistance to employees. It may be possible to get your foot in the door with an entry level administrative assistant or similar position and take courses at reduced or free tuition while earning an income. It will take longer to complete your degree than being a full time student, but would likely be worth it in the long run.

    Just remember that you are amazing and goods things are on the horizon for you. 🙂

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