Caring for our mothers 24/7 is wearing away at our marriage

Ask Ammanda Caring

This week’s problem comes (with the writer’s permission) from the Carers UK online forum.

Mum has been housebound for around six years, falls a lot and short-term memory loss is beginning to kick in. She lives 35 miles away from me, and I’ve been managing it by staying with her at weekends and a couple of nights in the week. I feel that I’m mentally on call 24 hours a day because I’m worrying what’s happening if I’m not there. On top of this, my husband has practically been living at his mum’s recently, caring for her because she is 92 and struggling to cope on her own.

Over the years it has taken a huge toll on me and my husband. We’re both exhausted and sometimes get pushed to snapping at each other – something we both try to avoid. We used to go on holiday a couple of times a year but we haven’t been for years. Now, on the rare occasions we’re in the house together, all we do is talk about ‘the mothers’. We’re both so tied up with our own responsibilities that we can’t be much support to each other.

Ammanda says…

I’m sure this very difficult and exhausting situation must be familiar to lots of people. We’re all living longer and the strain this can put on families and in particular the adult children who end up doing the caring is often enormous.

It sounds like your lives are now an endless round of looking after others and as a result (and not at all surprisingly) your relationship has ended up at the bottom of the priority list. It sounds like this has been going on for a long time and has got to a point now where both you and your husband now feel isolated and lonely.

You don’t say if there are other people lending a hand, whether that might be friends, family or perhaps professional help. Some people find it very difficult to accept that they cannot do everything for an aged relative and often, feelings of love, duty, responsibility and occasionally, guilt, can mean that even when additional help is available, it’s not always taken up. Of course, with resources so often being stretched to the limit in cases like this, I acknowledge it can be very difficult to get the level of cover that might be required. But if there is help available and it’s not being taken – I urge you: take it.

With so much of your time spent caring, it must seem almost impossible to think about being a couple again. It makes sense that if we spend our lives mainly doing one thing, and in this case that’s travelling and taking care of someone else, that’s all we’re going to have to talk about. If this goes on long enough, we might eventually end up being grateful we’ve even got mothers to discuss – because we’ve forgotten what it feel like to share anything else with a partner.

I’m not going to pretend there are any easy solutions here. Even when you no longer have your mums around, it’s possible you may get left with nagging doubts that you could have done more – even though its blindingly obvious to everyone that you did everything that was humanly possible. But if you can reclaim something of your relationship, this will hopefully outlive all the current problems, so making some small changes now means you’re more likely to have each other to turn to when it’s all over.

So, what to do? Firstly, create a space in the week for each other. People often think this means going out all evening or getting stuck into some lengthy conversations that inevitably mean you’re both left feeling anxious about all the things you could be doing. You say you’re rarely in the house together, but I’m wondering if this could be differently co-ordinated so that you can, as far as possible, rely on having even half an hour to sit down together. This doesn’t have to mean talking: it could just mean sitting in silence. This might sound like an odd suggestion coming from a relationship therapist, but sometimes, when we’re out of the habit of talking, just being with each with no pressure to make conversation can be the start of laying down new couple habits. One note: often, when there’s an overarching issue (in this case mothers), that fills all possible space, you do need to make a conscious effort not to revert to old way of doing things. This means coming to an agreement that neither of you will mention anything to do with mothers in that bit of couple space you’ve created. Also, do you ever eat together? Again, just sitting and sharing a meal can be worth its weight in gold.

Secondly I would ask: do you go to bed at the same time – and, more to the point, do you feel like you’re strangers in the bedroom? I’m not necessarily talking about sex (although I am wondering what sex means now for you in your relationship). Just touching a partners arm can mean so much when energy levels are right down and you can’t see a way out.

And thirdly, please keep talking to other carers on the Carers UK online forum. What you’re going through is terribly lonely. Getting the support of people who know what it’s really like and have experience helping with this kind of situation can be bigger than the sum of its parts. For expert advice on getting help with caring, contact their Adviceline on 0808 808 7777.

I’d like to say one more thing, which may sound challenging. Eventually each of you will lose your mum. Amongst all the feelings you may have when this happens, if one of them is relief, don’t push it away. You will have done your bit. I hope if you can make some of the small changes I’ve suggested, you’ll then have each other when everything else is done – and it won’t feel like you’re looking at a stranger.

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