My mother lives several hours away from me and my family. As she ages, she is in need of more help and attention. Though we have never spoken about it, my father (who died many years ago) was emotionally abusive to me throughout my entire childhood, and my mother never defended me adequately. While I am a competent person in most areas of my life, I feel like I just cannot maintain a substantive, ongoing relationship with my mom, including stepping up my care for her. My only other sibling, my older brother, has taken on much of the responsibility for supporting my mother, even though he doesn’t live any closer. He and I don’t talk much about this issue; I sense that he may be angry or disappointed with me, but he has only made passing comments about it, and I am not anxious to open the conversation with him. He had a very different relationship with our parents, and I don’t think he would understand my position. In truth, I don’t fully understand it. What are my ethical obligations?
Rabbi Naamah Kelman says…
Caring for our aging parents into our middle age years and beyond is the emerging challenge for many baby boomers. Our parents’ parents often died much younger; our children are a generation with economic and emotional needs different than baby boomers. So many of us find ourselves torn between our aging parents, our adult children, and even grandchildren.
We do have obligations to our parents, even if they were abusive, or enabled another abusive parent. They gave us life, and we are obligated to do our best to sustain theirs. Our first obligation, however, is to ourselves; “u’vacharta ba’chaim”–choose life. We are commanded to honor our parents, not choose their lives above ours.
In fact, the biblical commandment about honoring parents states: “Honor your father and mother in order to lengthen your days”–not “their days”. We do what we can–what we are physically, economically, and emotionally able to do. While we are indeed commanded to keep them safe and healthy, increasingly, we provide the assistance through caretakers.
A built-in consequence of aging parent care is that often one child takes on more responsibility, due to availability and capacity. This is potentially a cause of tremendous tension. The sibling relationship is key here; honesty, transparency, and communication, as much as they are possible, makes a difference.
As for your mother: Some parents use their final years to make amends, some simply cannot. If your mother cannot recognize your pain and her absence, you will have to make your peace with that, including knowing your limits for availability and care. If she does show remorse or understanding, it will certainly sweeten your remaining time with her.
It is the highest Jewish value to honor and respect our parents, but not at the expense of our own days and quality of life. Do your best to support your brother, and be with your mother as much as you are emotionally and financially able.
Naamah Kelman is Dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. She was born and raised in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1976 where she is involved in progressive Jewish causes including Interfaith work. She was the first woman to become a rabbi in Israel in 1992 and has fought for equality and justice for all Israelis.
Rabbi Dayle Friedman says…
The ancient sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that honoring your father and mother is the hardest mitzvah. We become caregivers in the context of long and often complicated parent-child relationships. When these relationships have been wounding, painful emotions may arise amid new demands and roles.
Your experience was that your mother did not meet your basic needs — she could not, or would not, protect you from your father’s emotional abuse — and it feels like more than you can handle to intensify your involvement with her now.
Jewish tradition outlines two primary obligations toward parents: honor (kavod) and reverence (mora). The rabbis explain in the Talmud that honor refers to providing for material needs (food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and medical attention), while reverence refers to avoiding actions that would damage the parent’s dignity. These duties must be balanced with our other obligations toward work, marital relationships, childrearing, and our own wellbeing.
The medieval thinker Maimonides writes that our obligation to provide care may be delegated to others if we find it too damaging. If you find it emotionally overwhelming to take a primary and direct role in your mother’s care, you can help your brother with the practical arrangements for the help she needs. You may also, over time, find opportunities to communicate more honestly with your brother – even if it doesn’t seem possible now.
I would also urge you to consider whether you can in some fashion forgive your mother for what she did and didn’t do. If you can, approach her with curiosity and compassion. Perhaps you will be able to learn more about, or at least imagine, what her experience was: Was she aware of what happened? Was she, too, abused? Might she regret her failure to protect you?
It is a burden to carry hurt and resentment — particularly after a parent is gone. Whether or not your mother is remorseful, or asks for your forgiveness, perhaps you will find a way to let go — not for her sake, but for your own.
Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman’s latest book is Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife (Jewish Lights, 2015). She helps individuals, families and communities to find meaning as a spiritual director, spiritual caregiver and teacher. She can be reached at the the Growing Older website.
Rabbi Suzanne Offit says…
You’ve heard wisdom from many sources in Jewish tradition: the rabbis of the Talmud, Maimonides, and other nameless men. Now it’s time to quote a woman: my therapist, Julie. “Let’s just sit for a moment with all these feelings.” Spend some time paying attention to your emotions; notice and name them so that they can inform how you act, but not hijack you.
With Rabbis Kelman and Friedman, let me give you permission and encouragement to care for yourself, too. Caring for your mother and caring for yourself are not two separate issues, but a single tightly tangled one that requires more exploration. So I mostly have more questions.
How do you want this story to end? When your mom dies — and she will someday, perhaps soon — how do you want to feel at her funeral? Do you want to feel settled, calm, connected, or do you want to feel resentful, remorseful, incomplete? (Of course, these are not the only options.) What agency might you exercise now, to get you closer to how you want that time to be?
Another wise man in our tradition, Leonard Cohen, said: “Ring the bells that still can ring – forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” There is brokenness in your family relationships, and there may be opportunities for new light in each relationship.
Beginning a conversation with your brother might be easier; you could start with, “Thank you for caring for our mother. I want talk to you more about this. You may know how painful it will be for me…” In what way might it also be possible reach out to your mother? Is there any healing possible within the relationship, even if it doesn’t “fix” anything? These hurts feel very deep and have created lasting dynamics in your family — and yet, there may be space for the light of healing. Consider what is possible. I wish you strength, courage, and compassion.
Rabbi Suzanne Offit was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She is presently Chaplain of Post Acute Units and also Rabbi of the Palliative Care Consult Team at Hebrew SeniorLIfe, Boston, MA. Rabbi Offit is an interfaith chaplain with training specialized in Jewish Geriatric chaplaincy and additional focus on working with patients and families in health care crises, Palliative Care and end of life.
Now, what do YOU say?
How are our obligations to our parents — and our ability to fulfill them — shaped by how they did, or didn’t, parent us?
And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com
Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.