If you’ve been following me on Twitter or reading this blog regularly, you probably noticed that I’ve been pretty quiet for a long time. I wanted to talk a bit about that, both because I thought it would be a good idea to explain what’s been going on and also share some of my perspective about it. If sharing my experience is useful to even a few people, then it’s worth doing. People who know me from Facebook have already heard a lot about this, and I’ve tweeted about it now and then, so this isn’t entirely news, but still, I feel like giving it a fuller treatment here.
So, here’s the deal.
Back in the early spring, my elderly father had a health issue that caused some problems and eventually it became clear that he needed surgery. After he came home to recover, it became clear that he needed another operation. After that one he did not come home immediately, but went to a rehab facility for six weeks or so. At this point, I can’t really remember how long my visits were up there or how many I made during this period, but I was up there quite a lot over the late spring and summer, helping with logistics, driving my mother around, and keeping her company. For quite a while my siblings (I’m one of four) and I had all agreed that my parents should not continue living in the house they’d been in for the past forty years or so. These medical issues and the challenges that accompanied them made it clear to all of us, and to my mother also, that the time had come when they really needed to move. (Although the previous Upstate New York winter had also done its part to convince my mother as well.)
And, of the four children, I’m the one that it makes the most sense for my parents to live close to. So, starting sometime in the summer, I started scouting out retirement communities nearby. I found one that I thought would be almost ideal. My mother came down and visited it, and I helped fill out the paperwork and handle the logistics. Oh, and yes, my parents also needed to sell their house, of course, to make this all happen. My siblings and I were working with the real estate agent to facilitate all that. So, we found a new place for them, they were accepted, we got a buyer for the house, we organized the move, figured out what was moving (a lot less than what they had, of course!), helped with getting rid of things that weren’t coming, and got them moved in this fall.
My brothers and sisters helped a great deal, of course, but as the one who doesn’t have a regular full-time job, and the person who was going to be handling a lot of post-move logistics, and maybe the person who gets along best with my mother, a lot of this work ended up falling on me. (And my husband. Who is amazing and deserves some kind of huge solid-gold trophy for all he has done and is continuing to do. ) But, anyway, I handled a lot of the organization for this, and anyone who knows me knows that’s something I don’t have a problem with.
The logistics weren’t really the big issue. What was exhausting and really took its toll was the emotional side of things. As you might imagine, convincing my parents that they needed to move, sell the house and give up their car has involved countless long and emotional conversations. Conversations about what possessions they wanted to keep or get rid of were complicated. And, going back to the spring, the issues surrounding my father’s surgeries also drained all of us. And even now, post-move, it’s not entirely over yet.
Oh, and just to paint you a complete picture, right after we got back from the SAA meeting in Cleveland, our dog got inexplicably very sick very suddenly and had to have an operation to try to figure out what was wrong. They never really did figure out what the problem was, but she recovered from the surgery and had gotten back to her old self, more or less. But then, right before we were heading up to my parents’ for the big move, we noticed something odd and took her to the vet. Cancer – lymphoma. She’s being treated, but it’s just a question of time, and it’s pretty sad to see her gradually slowing down.
So, I had a lot of good practical reasons for not being able to write blog posts, or take on new projects, or be on Twitter very often. However, I was also incredibly frustrated with myself that when I did have free time, I just didn’t have the energy or ability to focus to take on much of anything connected to my work. I spent a lot of time beating myself up about this. My inner critic is not shy about telling me when she thinks I’m not living up to my potential. So even when I had down time, I felt guilty about not doing something more productive with it.
It’s only fairly recently that I have managed to really convince myself of something that anyone else who’s gone through this probably knows all too well: when you’re going through anything like this, you’ve got to accept that this is what you’re doing right now, and maybe it’s all you can do right now and that’s perfectly ok. I don’t make any claim that this is a brilliant original observation. People who’ve brought children into the world or gone through dramatic or traumatic events with themselves, family, or friends are probably all reading this and saying, “Yeah, nothing new there.”
But, here’s the thing. I didn’t really get it until it happened to me. I thought I should still be able to churn out my work—at a reduced rate, sure, but I thought I should still be able to focus on the rest of my life. I thought I should be able to do it all. And I learned that I couldn’t. I still managed to keep my important professional commitments, but I couldn’t focus on the normal day to day things I wanted to, or start anything new. And for about six months or so, I felt like a really crappy person because I couldn’t. And I still kind of do, to be honest. But life is what it is. So, here’s the part when I figure maybe writing about this can help someone: if something like this happens to you, and you need to shut down the professional side of your life, it’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up, like I did. Tell your inner critic that Kate said s/he should sit down and shut up.
On the bright side, during this process my community of online friends has been consistently supportive and full of wise words and encouragement. And when I saw people who knew what I was going through in person—at SAA or MARAC meetings—I was surprised at just how many of them came forward with stories of their own experiences with their parents. And hugs. I am notoriously a person who isn’t a natural hugger, but under the circumstances I accepted them with gratitude. I will not say that I was surprised at how supportive everyone was, because that makes it sound like I didn’t expect people to be so good. So I was not surprised, but grateful. Very grateful.
And there’s been some talk around the mid-career archivists’ circle that we could do more as a professional community to acknowledge and share our experiences caring for our parents. There’s nothing here that’s unique or specific to us as archivists, but still, based on what I went through I can testify that it’s helpful to have people to talk to (virtually and in person). We all have our personal networks, of course, but sometimes it’s good to hear from your professional peers too.
A friend suggested that I should write a post for the blog on this experience from the perspective of an archivist, and I still might do that. But for now, you know what’s been going on with me, and hopefully if there’s anybody out there who needed to hear that it’s ok not to be a superhuman, you’ve now heard it. I know there are lots of people out there who can juggle all this kind of stuff, and more, and continue to churn out work because they have to. If you’re one of those people, I applaud and salute you. But if, like me, you’re not, that’s just fine.
My parents are still settling in to their new place, and so are still needing a fair bit of my time, but I’m optimistic about being able to get back to my own work, with a renewed appreciation for how much I enjoy it, in 2016.
NOTE: When I went to post this I was reminded that there’s a problem with comments here on the blog. It seems you can’t leave new ones or see any of the old ones. So, another thing for my professional to-do list: get that sorted out. I believe the old comments are being saved, at least it seems like they are. Anyway, for now this post will have to remain up here, without comment.