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 about an abusive parent 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.
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—caring for a sick, abusive parent.
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—especially an abusive parent—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 I was dealing with my sick, abusive parent. It sounds like you may be past the point of really needing some of 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 parent—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 your reasons for 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 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 as caretaker 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 abusive parent is a fuckstick and anyone who participated in railroading you into this is AFS (also a fuckstick).
You also might want to check out our other advice about mental health:
- Ask the Bitches: “How Do I Protect My Own Mental Health While Still Helping Others?”
- Our Master List of 100% Free Mental Health Self-Care Tactics
- How Mental Health Affects Your Finances
- Bitchtastic Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Your Big Brain
- Everything Is Stressful and I’m Dying: How to Survive a Panic Attack
- Stop Recommending Therapy Like It’s a Magic Bean That’ll Grow Me a Beanstalk to Neurotypicaltown
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 to 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 like flung spaghetti on a cabinet door!
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. Your strengths have been tempered in the fire of a sick, abusive parent and that hardship can’t be taken for granted.
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.
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 and internships. 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. Or see if their workplace can offer you an informational interview. 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.
If you want to, 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 Facebook 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.
Or 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, you have 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. If food service is your best option, figure out what you have to do to get out of bussing and into bartending.
You can also 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 goes for my friends who started photography and dog-walking companies around the same time.
Put “full-time caregiver” on your resume
Gone are the days when being a full-time caregiver was something to hide. There is a growing realization that the skills and fortitude required for this role are transferable and valuable. And make no mistake: this was your job description as you looked after your sick, abusive parent.
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, abusive 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.”
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.
And remember that temporarily settling in your employment and career is still a step out of the long, dark tunnel of caring for you abusive parent. It’s still progress!
It sounds like you have more time now than you did while looking after your sick mother. Volunteering occasionally would be a great way to spend that time. You’ve been forced to be charitable to an abusive parent for so long that you might’ve forgotten how good it can feel when it’s voluntary. It could be a soul-healing experience.
Plus, volunteering is a great way to round out your resume and meet new people.
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 with which you grew up. 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, then at the very least you must practice defining and defending boundaries when it comes to your family. You’re an adult now. If they want a relationship with you, let it be on your terms.
The second you can afford it, get therapy. You’ve fucking 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 (the former Dear Prudence) 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 in 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 well, vote with their interests in mind, and defend them against those who demean their worth as people.