Tight Knit

Ep. 4: Difficult Relationships

Episode Summary

You might become a parent’s caregiver out of love, or a wish to give back. But that’s much harder for children who were abused by the parent who needs them.

Episode Transcription

Difficult Relationships

Before we begin, a quick note. This series was created *before* the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ll hear an update on the caregivers and families you’re about to meet at the end of the episode.

Ashley Milne-Tyte:

If your mother or father got sick--would you drop everything  to take care of them? For some people, that’s an automatic yes. It’s just “what you do” when you love someone. But plenty of people come from families where love, or even respect--was in short supply. One or both parents may have left home, been an addict, or there may have been violence or abuse. Yet many adult children who had an abusive or unloving parent still step up near the end of that parent’s life. 


STEPHANIE BURNETT: It never crossed my mind, not to come. Not saying that I wanted to. Oh, God, it was the hardest decision ever. But no, I did not have a choice.


AMT: So how do you care for a parent who neglected or hurt you, while also looking out for yourself?

Welcome to Tight Knit, a podcast about the many ways people are working to build stronger relationships and communities.

And in this episode, we meet a woman who overcame a rough childhood--but still returned to look after one of the people who’d made it so hard.


AMT: Stephanie Burnett lives in Detroit, the city where she grew up, and looks after her mother--who is 80 now, and has dementia. Stephanie herself is 55, and a grandmother as well as her mother’s caregiver. Being with her mother is a fourth career for Stephanie, in some ways. She’s got three degrees:  a BA in accounting and two Masters, one in computer information systems … and one in divinity. She says that her multiple careers, endless thirst for knowledge, and lifelong relationship with God - they’ve helped define her, and let her move on from her childhood.  


STEPHANIE: I was always belittled and derided at home, and that’s where you get your identity.


AMT:  To understand whyStephanie HAS come back home, here's a bit of background. Stephanie, her older sister and her mother moved to Detroit from Georgia when the girls were little.  Their mother worked as a nurse’s aid, and Stephanie says they barely scraped by. And in a house where no one had much, Stephanie says she had two big advantages people noticed...and which made her a family target: she was smart AND she was good looking. Her looks made her elder sister jealous. She often bullied Stephanie. Meanwhile, her mother, who’d quit school in 9th grade, seemed to resent Stephanie’s good grades--and her love of learning. 


STEPHANIE: I was a reader, I was a writer. You know, I was just this really weird little kid. You know, I asked my mom, ‘Mom, do they call boy ladybugs, ladybugs?’

[Laughing] And she said, ‘Hell, I don't know. Go to the library. I don’t know.’ So I went to the library. Two hours later, I come back home and she's like, ‘where have you been?’ I said, ‘to the library.’ ‘Well, who told you you could go to the library?’ I say, ‘you told me to go to the library.’ ‘I didn't mean it, you know I didn’t mean for you to go to the goddamn library!’ - you know…[laughs, fade down].


AMT: Stephanie didn’t have many places to go, and her home was unhealthy in another way: a doctor told her mom Stephanie’s health was suffering because everyone else in the household smoked. He said the smokers had to shut themselves in a room, or make sure Stephanie was in a room away from the secondhand smoke.


STEPHANIE: Consequently, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom by myself.


AMT: She’d read and study there, while everyone else puffed away. She says her mom was often angry and cursing, barking orders or berating her for perceived mistakes. But she used Stephanie’s looks whenever she needed to. Especially when money was tight.


STEPHANIE: She had no problem whatsoever saying, ‘the man at the store likes you, go up there and get us something to eat,’ or ‘the man next door really likes you. Go borrow me a couple of cigarettes from him.’


AMT: She says that feeling of being valued because of what she could GET for her mother---instead of being valued for who she IS---has followed her into adulthood. For affirmation and acceptance, she looked elsewhere. And as a little girl, she started going to a nearby church--by herself. It was the beginning of a lasting relationship with God.


STEPHANIE: My church family was my family. You can't choose your biological family, but God gives us the blessing of being adopted into the family of Christ. And for me, that was my happy place. Every coat I ever got somebody at church gave it to me.”


AMT: The congregation took care of her. Sometimes she felt love and acceptance from her mother, too--which made her feel needed. Her mom would have Stephanie gowith her to pick up her paycheck on her day off, then take her for lunch downtown.


STEPHANIE: She liked my hair to look nice because I had, you know, in the African-American culture, ‘good hair.’ And so there were times when it was good, especially if she didn't have a boyfriend. If she didn't have a boyfriend, then her affections would turn towards me and my sister.


AMT: By Stephanie’s teens, those moments with her mother were scarce. And her family’s resentment and jealousy were coming to a head. Her sister had quit school, and had a baby at 15, then another at 18…while Stephanie was about to graduate high school, with much praise from her teachers. On graduation day, her mom and sister came to the ceremony. Then Stephanie went to a friend’s house for a while. When she came home, and was changing to go to an after-party, she says her sister demanded to know where Stephanie thought she was going.


STEPHANIE: So I pull my hair around and I'm braiding my hair. And my mother says, you heard what your sister said. Where the hell do you think you're going? And I'm like, Mom, I'm going to the after party, I’m going to to our graduation party.

And my sister says, ‘you ain't going no goddamn where.’ I say, ‘you're not my mother.’ And my mother jumps up off the couch, slaps me across my face, knocks me backwards, bust my lip. My sister steps over me and drags me up the stairs by my hair. And I swing into the bathroom trying to get away, and my mother told me, ‘Bitch, you ain't nothin, you ain't ever gonna be nothing. You ain’t going no goddamn where.’


AMT: They were wrong. A few days later Stephanie opened a letter to find she had been granted full financial aid to attend Wayne State University in Detroit. She WAS on her way.


AMT: Not only did Stephanie finish college and go on to graduate school...she married and had a family of her own, a son and a daughter. She moved around the country first for her husband’s job, and, eventually, after they divorced, for her own.  All this time she kept in touch with her family and helped out financially.


STEPHANIE: I always have taken care of my family. I was always the source of income. I was always the one that handled everything.


AMT: While they’d often derided her achievements, they’d also looked to her as the sensible one, the one who would follow through, get things done. She was their rock. Her mother’s boyfriend, Stephanie’s stepfather, died after years of drinking, leaving her mom and her sister together in Detroit. But her sister had got into drugs as a teen, and was never able to break the habit. She and Stephanie had just begun to repair their relationship, to talk about their childhood, when her sister died of an overdose in 2011.


STEPHANIE: So subsequent to my sister dying, my mom now has no one to talk to but me.


AMT: And Stephanie soon recognizes that things aren’t right. She’s living outside Washington, DC at this point, but she and her mom talk a lot on the phone. She notices her mom seems confused, and often asks Stephanie the same questions she answered the day before. So Stephanie comes up to Detroit to check on her. She suspects that her mother has dementia. Not long after that, at 74, her mom is diagnosed. Stephanie knows what she needs to do. Her mother is alone. She has to move back to Detroit and take care of her. Even if it’s the last thing she wants to do.


STEPHANIE: Now, mind you, at that point, my daughter had just had my first grandson, in September. And I was supposedly going to be his caregiver while she went to school in the evening...and I had to leave. And that was very, very difficult to leave my six month old grandson to come and take care of a mother whom at the time doesn't realize she has a problem.


AMT: One thing Stephanie knew she wasn’t going to do when she got back? Live with her mother. She says her mother was always demanding; that hadn’t changed. And Stephanie had to protect herself because of the past. 

She didn’t want to put herself in a position where she might feel used...or abused... on a daily basis. So she rented her own apartment and checked on her mom regularly. There was a lot to sort out when she first got there. 

Her mom had racked up 15 thousand dollars in debt ordering from online catalogs - things Stephanie says she didn’t even need.


STEPHANIE: So she had accounts with all these places and she was buying stuff, just left, right...


AMT: Later, like a lot of older people, her mom fell victim to a financial scam. Again, Stephanie jumped in and cleaned up the mess. She now haspower of attorneyover her mother’s financial and healthcare decisions.


STEPHANIE: Now I'm proud to say her credit score is actually probably better than mine because I've paid everything off. She has no more revolving credit. If she wants something, I make sure she gets it. I will take her shopping, even though it is the most difficult task in the world, get her what she needs and make sure she has everything.


AMT: Another thing she was doing a lot of in the early days - rushing over to make sure her mom was taking the right medications when she was supposed to. That and worrying about her nutrition. Her mom is from Georgia, and Stephanie says she loves Southern food with all its salt and fat. Stephanie soon realized her mom was hoarding old food in the fridge, eating it, and getting sick. Stephanie knew they both needed help.


STEPHANIE: Before she went in assisted living, I was constantly worried about her health. I was constantly worried about what she was eating. I was worrying all the time about the odor, because she wouldn't bathe...she would get money on her laundry card, but then take the clothes down and not go get them back out of the washer.


AMT: She ended up doing her mom’s laundry, paying her bills, shopping, and cooking. To give herself a break, she began using food delivery apps to send meals to her mom.


STEPHANIE: DoorDash, and Grubhub saved me so many days because I could call them and say, okay, take her this, you know. But even then she wouldn't, she didn't want to go downstairs just to get the food. So yeah, before, before assisted living it was, it was getting to be really, really heavy.


AMT: She was trying to make sure everything was OK for a mother she felt had never properly cared for her. Moving her to assisted living was a way for Stephanie to continue her caregiving role without burning out. She feels a profound sense of relief knowing there are now staff around to look out for her mother. But even though all her mom needs to do is press a button to get help, Stephanie is on call a lot.


STEPHANIE: She does this robo dialing. I have screenshots where she has called me every three minutes for an hour. One day she called me 17 times. I answered four or five, because I have to protect myself.


AMT: Her mom still looks to Stephanie first to satisfy her needs. Especially her need to smoke. And remember, for Stephanie, her mom’s love of nicotine brings up painful memories--of when she’d have to stay in her childhood room to keep away from all the smoke in the apartment. Regular cigarettes were becoming a fire hazard: because her mom had started throwing them behind the couch. So Stephanie switched her to e-cigarettes.


STEPHANIE: But then that meant I'm getting calls every other day: ‘I need cigarettes. I need cigarettes. I need cigarettes.’ And mind you, that thing about me having to be sequestered in my bedroom because everybody else smoked…was a real tough pill for me to get by, because somewhere in my mind I stored that you care more about cigarettes than you do about me. And even now, if she asked me to go get her cigarettes, it peeves me to no end. So what I did was I did an autofill order so that she gets her cigarettes every month without having to ask me about it, because I had to move that friction out of my life for me to be OK.”


AMT: By having the cigarettes re-order automatically, Stephanie is shielding herself from the bad memories smoking brings up…from the suspicion that her mom values smoking more than she does her daughter. When Stephanie pre-orders the cigarettes it’s a way of protecting and caring for herself. This is the kind of small fix that can make a world of difference to caregivers.


LISA KENDALL: I think about 18 percent of family caregivers would self-identify as coming from a family where there was dysfunction. And dysfunction really just means painful functioning.


AMT: This is Lisa Kendall. She’s a social worker and gerontologist in Ithaca, New York.That 18% number comes from a study published five years ago in the academic journal The Gerontologist. It looked at depression in adult caregivers who took care of a parent who had mistreated them in childhood. For more than 30 years,  Lisa has specialized in helping people who care for someone with whom they’ve had a difficult relationship. She says people have all sorts of reasons for looking after someone who hurt or neglectedthem. Many grown children step up because they see themselves as the rescuer.


LISA: We kind of get the idea that we have to be the hero child and that we're the only one. Sometimes we're told that outright. And the truth is there are other people that can step in to that role, and either allow us to step back completely or allow us to find what I think of as a safe distance.


AMT: Putting yourself at a safe distance could mean hiring help, asking friends or family to pitch in, or moving the older person to assisted living... or a nursing home. But it could also mean some of the smaller things Stephanie’s done - like not answering the phone every time the parent calls, or using an app to deliver meals when you can’t face cooking. Stephanie opted to care for her mom despite their difficulties--and despite all the worryahead---because she saw it as the right thing to do. She’s said that she was clear- eyed about her mother: she wasn’t expecting a reward. But Lisa Kendall says many adults who’ve suffered neglect or abuse from a parent…they see caregiving as a time to fix unfinished business.


LISA: And so the person who's giving the care is really secretly hoping that maybe mom or dad will say, ‘you know what, I've been wrong all these years. You really are a good person.’ And that's really difficult. That's really painful because they may get that affirmation, but they may not ever get it.


AMT: Lisa says many caregivers are stuck in unhealthy old habits, afraid to say no to a domineering or abusive parent, letting themselves get pushed around. She says the caregiver still feels like a child, quaking at the thought of their parent’s anger.As if mom or dad still holds the power in the relationship.


LISA: But that's not really true anymore. And I try to help my clients realize that they are now as tall or probably taller than their parents, much stronger, and I have clinical techniques to help them feel their size, feel their power, and to recognize that if their parent blows up, what's that really going to look like? And most of the time, if they allow that explosion to happen, the parent may sputter and curse and blow up. But the world doesn't end. So if you say: ‘Please stop talking to me like that. I find it offensive. I don't deserve to be treated like that. I'm going to hang up the phone,’ and you do it...nothing happens. And you will eventually train the person to stop treating you meanly.


AMT: She says the challenge for caregivers is to learn to set these boundaries--which are a big part of taking care of themselves. Stephanie Burnett has set strong boundaries. And is trying to accepther mother as she is, not as she’d like her to be.


AM-T : Is she...because she was really verbally abusive with you, not to mention sometimes physically abusive...is she still verbally abusive?


STEPHANIE: Funny story, OK. ‘I want you to come over here.’ I said, Mom, I was just over there yesterday. ‘I’d see you every day if I could. I just love you to death because you all I got!’ So she always says, I love you because you're all I have.

So whenever you can put a reason on why you love someone, you don't love them for just being, so that bothers me. But, you know, I'm a big girl. I can handle it. But now, no, she's not verbally abusive because I'm all she has. And so I am a treasure because now were it not for me, she'd have nobody. And she says that all the time. But that also means that I am the source of all meaning. If mail comes, she's gotta call me. If they don't clean her room the way she thinks it should be, she's going to call me. Even then, even the assisted living place called me and said, Your mother won't take a bath if you don't come. So it's not that she's abusive. It's that I'm her anchor now. And I knew that I could not live with my mother. And so putting her in assisted living has given me at least a degree of separation that allows me to function without the anger and without feeling as if I gave up my entire life, even though in theory I really did.


AMT: When Stephanie moved back to Detroit she left both her kids, not to mention her new grandson, near Washington DC. That was a better place for her professionally. Her job as a systems analyst is based there…She’s been able to do it remotely from Detroit, working from home. That lets her check on her mom whenever she needs to. But she says she needs to be in the DC area for her career to truly progress. All the jobs she’d like to do require her to live and work there. For now, she has no idea when she’ll be able to leave Detroit. Sometimes she can’t help wishing that time would come.


STEPHANIE: There's this thing where you want this to be over. But in wanting it to be over, you're praying for the demise of your parent. And then the guilt comes because you want this thing to be over. It's like you want it to be over, but you're not allowed to want it to be over.


AM-T: Did you ever, did it ever occur to you just...not to do this? Not to come back, not to be looking after her? Because a lot of people who had a childhood like yours would say, ‘I'm not looking after her.’


STEPHANIE: No, it never crossed my mind, not to come. Not saying that I wanted to. Oh, God, it was the hardest decision ever. But no, I did not have a choice. What kind of Christian would I be, that I would allow my mom to falter in her final days? 


AMT: Stephanie’s presence in Detroit - all the attention she’s paying to her mother - has improved her mother’s health. She’s eating better and taking her medications. Her blood pressure is much lower now than when Stephanie got there. But in giving so much to her mom, she’s neglected herself. For a long time she didn’t date, or try to make new friends.


STEPHANIE: I put myself in isolation for six years. So now I'm like, OK, Steph, truth about the matter is, some of this pain and angst you’re feeling, is of your own making. You must still live. You cannot die or start dying until it's your turn. Even though you're taking care of your mother, you don't have to sequester yourself and not enjoy life.


AMT: She says this year, she turned over a new leaf. She told herself, ‘If I’m going to be here, I have to be more present for myself.’ To do that she’s turned to things that have brought her solace since she was a child - reading and Church. She goes out with old friends more than she used to. And she has some stress relief at home now, too.


STEPHANIE: I bought me two kittens. That helps a lot. My daughter and I are very, very close and she calls and checks on me.


AMT: One of her sister’s two sons, who Stephanie took in when he was a teenager…now lives in Detroit with his family. She’s always called him her neph-son.


STEPHANIE: My neph-son coming back helped a lot. I actually watch my grandbaby girl, about 5 hours every day.


AMT:  All this brings her comfort. And that church she goes to - it’s not the same church she attended growing up…it’s the one her mom goes to. And members of the congregation sometimes come up to Stephanie and say, ‘oh, your mother’s so sweet!’ Stephanie simply smiles, and says ‘thank you.’


STEPHANIE: I don't hate my mother. I mean if I did not have the negative opposition, I don't know that I would be as strong as I am now. You know, the oak is strengthened by the wind blowing against it. I don't know that I could have withstood some of them - the things that society throws at you had I not withstood the things that my family threw at me. It is just about nothing anyone has said to me that hasn’t already been said.


AMT: And Stephanie has new insight on her childhood and on her mother. In her thirties Stephanie was diagnosed with a hormonal disorder. It made her feel depressed, but also mean. She’d have to bite her tongue not to lash out at her family. She’s been on medication for years now, and she says it changed her life. Stephanie thinks her mother may have suffered from the same condition, and she’s sad that her mom never got any help.


AM-T: You said earlier - you said you didn't hate your mother. Do you love your mother? 


STEPHANIE: I do. I do love my mother. I don't like a lot of things about my mother, but I do love her. I would never, ever let her suffer. I would never let her be without.


AMT: And she never does. But Stephanie has begun to go on vacation in the last couple of years, knowing her mom is well taken care of in assisted living. Stephanie needs that escape to get a fresh perspective and look after herself. Still, she says, she will be in Detroit for as long as her mother needs her.


As the world has changed in the last several months, Stephanie’s life has changed too. 

Both of her kids and her neph-son have lost their jobs since the pandemic began. 

She’s been helping them out when they need it. Stephanie also lost a family friend to the virus, a doctor who worked in a local jail. 

Her mom is OK. Stephanie has been able to see her outside her facility and take her out from time to time. But she’s been very needy - she still calls Stephanie a LOT. 

The isolation of lockdown hasn’t bothered Stephanie though. As an introvert, she’s kind of enjoying it. She’s been attending church services online. 

And she says now everyone else at her organization is working from home, she doesn’t feel out of the loop anymore. 

In our next episode we'll meet two women who stepped up to care for parents who --for a long time-- rejected who they are:


TAPE/VEGA: So he would say, this is my daughter Mala. And then he would say, and this is... and Mala would say ‘my wife’ and he would say ‘her friend.’

Tight Knit is a project of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

Our story editor is Diantha Parker. This series is sound designed and mixed by Thrilla Park Audio. And our executive producer is Mikel Ellcessor for Limina House. 

We had production assistance from Mary Sier, Sara Ali and the team at Lafayette American.

The caregivers we’re meeting are just some of the many people out there who are looking after someone.If what you’ve heard reminds you of someone you know, please share this with them. You can find this story and more at tightknit dot org. You can also join the conversation on social media @RCWJRFI’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. And thanks for listening.