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You’ve consciously coupled. You and your spouse discussed everything from money to sex to children to in-laws to household chores. Maybe you even read The New I Do (hey, an author can dream, right?). I applaud you and support you. Still, I’ll bet there’s something you didn’t discuss, and it’s not because you’re oblivious. You’re not. Even my co-author and I neglected to address it in The New I Do — who will care for your elderly parents and stepparents and how?


Parental caregiving is huge, especially since people are living longer nowadays, most of us don’t live close to our families — or in multi-generational homes, as in days past — and because most women are working outside the home. It didn’t happen to me until I was divorced so it wasn’t a big part of my romantic reality, even though I had a romantic partner at the time. He and I lived apart and he’d barely met my parents, who lived 3,000 miles from me, so who was going to take care of whom wasn’t part of our discussion; it did, however, impact my relationship with my sister, my only sibling, and let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

Honey, we need to talk

My “aha” moment about it came when I stumbled upon a post (and the heartbreaking comments) in the wonderful wedding planning website A Practical Wedding. In it, author Stephanie Kaloi wonders if she and her husband will become the caregivers for their families; it’s something they never discussed when they wed years ago even though they have six aging parents and stepparents between them. As she writes:

In our house, we didn’t start having this conversation until two years ago, when my husband started working at a home for patients who have Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. It’s worth noting that his home was one of the “good” ones, and in a state that has far better laws and regulations about elder care than others. But even still, he quickly, and firmly, made a decision that none of our parents would ever end up in a facility like that. Since I have always assumed I would offer my mother a space in our home at any point in her life if she needed it, I agreed. At the time neither of us was thinking about our ever-pressing student loan debt and what that might mean for our financial future (to be honest, we still have no idea) — we just felt like this was the only clear option before us. tweet

 And often it is the only clear option. But not necessarily a happy one.

Adult children are doing nearly half of the daily caregiving for their elderly parents, stepparents and in-laws, and — no surprise — the overwhelming majority of those caregivers are women. While the burden of that affects many adult daughters, heterosexual women  — married women — suffer the most. Why? Their husbands often aren’t supportive of their parental caregiving, leading to marital stress as well as personal stress. Same-sex couples — particularly women — without the same societal gendered expectations seem to fare better.

Does it suck to be a hetero woman or what?

Well, I’m actually happily hetero — a divorced one at that — and yet I believe it’s wrong that we women are expected to handle the majority of the caregiving, including the emotional caretaking, in our families. Are we responsible for being our elders’ caregivers, too? We pay a huge price for it just as do for caring for our children. As Liz O’Donnell writes in the Atlantic:

There are currently 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the majority are women. And yet there are very few support programs, formal or informal, in place to support these family caregivers, many of whom are struggling at work and at home. Working daughters often find they need to switch to a less demanding job, take time off, or quit work altogether in order to make time for their caregiving duties. As a result, they suffer loss of wages and risk losing job-related benefits such as health insurance, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits. … Caregiving tends to hit women in their mid-40s, just around the time their earning potential starts to wane and dangerously close to the age when they may not be able to reenter the workforce if they leave. tweet

How much do we women lose? About $324,044. But our health and, sometimes, marriages suffer, too.

Making a plan

If parental caregiving isn’t something you want to do or if it’s something you actually want to do but want to create boundaries and realistic expectations — like you only want to do it for your own parents and not your in-laws or vice versa or some variation — please don’t be like Stephanie Kaloi and wait X-number of years into your relationship to have a discussion about it.

Do it now, wherever you are in your romantic relationship (yeah, even if you’ve been dating for a while and things are getting serious). It’s your life. And, of course, have that discussion with your parents first; they may — and probably will — have other ideas than yours. And, have that discussion with them and your siblings, if you have them, because they may have other ideas, too.

It’s true that we can’t plan for everything in our future, but we can at least discuss some of the hard stuff, which will uncover beliefs and values we may not have been aware of, and create a tentative plan with flexible options. That’s the beauty of a marital plan — it forces you to have those tough discussions and gives you a baseline from which you can tweak things. And if your husband is adamant that his mother will never go into a nursing home, but he doesn’t plan to quit or cut back work to care for her, well, that’s probably something you’d want to address ASAP.

It may not be an easy discussion, but I can tell you from experience that few if any rational and satisfying decisions are made in moments of crisis, especially when it comes to our parents.

Interested in having a marital plan that includes parental caregiving? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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