Is this empty-nest role reversal normal? How can I stop it!??
December 30, 2010 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I have weird feelings of guilt/empty-nest role reversal?? My parents are relatively young (dad is 54, mom is 57), and I just moved out a few months ago 500 miles away, and I am scared to death that something is going to happen to them and I won't be there to save them. Is this psychological torture completely crazy?

Hi MeFi world. You really helped me see the light before, and I'm hoping you can shed some on my current situation. sorry for the lengthy post (I kind of diarrhea-ed my feelings out here), but I really wanted to get feelings (accurate and perhaps superfluous) across. I appreciate your help. Here goes:

My parents are healthy (other than poor eating habits which has led to them packing on some extra pounds). I am the oldest of 3 (me-26, bro-24, sis-21), and I just left the nest after some non-profit post-grad stuff, and moved 500 miles away from the parents and brother. I am home for the holidays, and am sick to my stomach to know that I have to leave my family in 3 days to go back to where I moved to (I refuse to call this new place home because in my mind, I can only call where my parents are, "home"...crazy yet?) Because I have a strange, oftentimes debilitating, feeling that is close to a sort of emotional gasping for air, almost a choking feeling when I think about not spending enough time with my family, my boyfriend takes this to be a "disinterest" in him because I tend to choose my family over him (I think I spend a balanced time with him and my family when I am home for bouts at a time...but this is about WHY I feel the way I do about my family and not why he feels insecure about the time I spend with them....I digress...)

Anyway, oftentimes I get the feeling, or at least I psych myself out, by a little voice in my head that tells me that my parents are getting old without me, that they are lonely without me, that I should be the one to take care of them and make them happy--maybe this is a weird psychological obligation I feel to role-reverse. I don't know where this sense of morbidity comes from. It is almost to the point where, when I am not with them or if I spend long bouts of time away from them (for instance, if I spend an entire day at my boyfriend's), this immense and overwhelming guilt wells up inside me to think that they could be gone any second. Something could happen to me or to them, and I could lose them forever, the last time I ran out the door being the last time I'll ever see them again.

I am terrified, TERRIFIED, that something will happen to my parents, and I won't be there to help, offer support, or say goodbye, or just be there. This is where it really affects my sense of "freedom" because when I think about this fear of mine (realizing it might actually be crazy), I wonder how I will ever be able to live my own life and be happy, being wherever I want to be, without worrying that they need me or that I am not fulfilling my duties as a good daughter, or terrified of the guilt that I know is looming should something happen and I am not there.

And I know my parents are perfectly capable of handling their own lives by themselves and through the strength of one another. They both have jobs they enjoy, a nice house in a nice neighborhood, my brother still lives with them. So, perhaps my fear is rooted in a selfish confession buried inside me revealing the truth that I am scared to live my own life without them. And I know I can keep my own self afloat. I enrolled in a school, and paid some expensive tuition, moved my butt up to Boston, and snagged myself a sweet job. But still, there's a child in me that years for parental approval (WTF??), for them to pat me on the head and say, "good girl", and who wants to be assured that they will drive the 10 hours north, pack up all my stuff in the family station wagon, and carry me home when I'm homesick and have had enough of this fake adult-like life.

My parents do not harbor these feelings of guilt inside me, however, and want nothing but the best for me and want me to be happy, traveling the world, seeing different places, meeting new people, being as successful as I can be, etc. My fears became reality one night when I had driven home from my boyfriend's place at around 1 am (they don't like me staying over...that's another MeFi post for another time..), but I walked into the house, music still playing, lights on, half-eaten dinner on the table, with a note from my mom that had said they'd gone to the hospital. My father had had pains in his shoulder and back. This was enough to drop me into a depressing state of emotional panic and guilt, as I got back into my car, and rushed to the hospital, where I found my parents, and cried when I got there, guilty tears pouring down my cheeks after having not heeded my dad's cautionary "don't be home too late" he'd given me earlier that evening. Had I been home, I could have accompanied them to the hospital. Had I been there, my mom wouldn't have had to go alone, not have been scared alone, my dad wouldn't have had to fill out the paperwork with his shaky hand. I could have done it for him.

I am grateful for the love and loyalty I feel towards my family, but I wish I could live my own life, accepting what life gives me, and accepting that my parents will be ok without me. THese feelings are really emotionally debilitation, like I said, and I think I have started to fade into a slight depression being now 500 miles away from them, constantly worrying about them. I just feel fatality creeping up on me, and the fact that they do not have very good nutritional eating habits furthers this feeling of guilt since I am currently getting a masters in nutrition and this makes me dread the point in their lives when they (or parts of their bodies and insides) finally succumb to their horrid nutritional habits. I, their own daughter, their own flesh and blood, their own masters candidate in human nutrition, couldn't save them. I am supposed to be devoting my life to saving people from preventable nutritionally-related diseases, and what if I can't save my own parents.

I'm a mess.

(Last additions: I am also a very social person, so this may be compounded by the fact that I spent many days and evenings talking with my parents about different things and now that I live alone, I don't have that.)

Please please help. I pray everyday for tranquility and serenity. Honestly, I should probably just see a shrink. If it makes a difference, I frequently contribute feelings like this to my own self-admitted "Catholic guilt", but who knows.
posted by LemonGardot to Human Relations (16 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I am so sorry LemonGardot that you feel this way, and I think that this is perfectly normal. What you describe to me sounds like a much healthier version of some type of codependent behavior, albeit of a much different sort. For the longest time, I thought codependence was simply enabling an alcoholic to continue drinking, but I was completely wrong. Codependency can affect all sorts of relationships, even when there is no pathology (like alcoholism) involved. Admittedly, I am not any sort of professional in such matters, but as a personal observation, your suffering sounds like a sort of codependent behavior. I expect that it would just naturally fade with time. Give yourself a break, you just moved away from home. What a major change! Life must feel really different right now. Home up and moved itself five hundred miles away from "home", and your brain still hasn't gotten itself wrapped around that fact. I think it's great that you and your parents are so close. Have you spoken to them about how you feel?
posted by msali at 8:38 PM on December 30, 2010

This all sounds absolutely normal, especially for having just left the nest. Sometimes when I get a call at an odd time of day (say 3 p.m., nobody calls me then), I become panicked and convinced that one of my siblings or parents just had a horrible car accident and it's The Call. (It's never The Call. It's always a solicitor. Calling illegally.) Dude, I feel superstitious about it even typing that!

I always had an incredibly difficult time leaving my parents' home to go back to my house/apartment/whatever. Even after I was married. Even after I bought a house. And then I gradually got attached to my house and we built a life and my current city migrated into the "home" position in my head, and THEN I started having panic attacks every time I left my house (something horrible might happen to my cats! I might get burgled! It might burn down!) and then panic attacks every time I left my parents' house (something horrible might happen to my family when I'm not there!)! I honestly required Xanax to deal with a 150-mile drive between the two places!

It eventually got less-bad and now I just cry upon farewells (which my mother did up until the day her mother died, cry every time we left grandma's) and don't have panic attacks.

Therapy may help, but I think you'll probably just settle into a new equilibrium with some time and patience and kindness to yourself. It's hard for close families to be geographically distant. That's just reality.

What happened to your father sucks and I know how traumatic that kind of thing is. Again, therapy may help. But you also do need to realize that this kind of thing HAPPENS and you have no control over it. Your parents were probably worried that YOU would freak out, while you're worried about them needing help. They're adults. They managed it. Just last week I took a nasty fall and had to race to the doctor for an emergency ultrasound (I'm pregnant), toddler in tow, because I couldn't reach my husband, and he happened to be without transit that day so when I eventually did reach him by phone he couldn't get to me, and I couldn't reach anyone else to take my toddler for an hour. I had to leave him a note stuck on the door, which I felt rotten about because I knew it would scare him. But, you know, Things Happen, and People Cope. REGARDLESS of whether you live close or far, you will not always be able to be there for your loved ones when they have a crisis. A friend of mine was on a school trip to Russia and had to be airlifted to Sweden for an emergency appendectomy. You can't plan for that, and you can only control it by never letting people out of your sight -- unhealthy. Try to make peace with that fact.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:50 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you're normal, but you're certainly not alone.

I am a college student and tend to have a lot of guilt about spending enough time with my family while I'm home for the holidays, and worry about how they fare without me when I'm gone.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 8:53 PM on December 30, 2010

Your parents managed to survive a long time before you were born. Longer, in fact, than you have been alive. They'll manage just fine.
posted by sanka at 8:58 PM on December 30, 2010

It sounds like you really love your family. I'm not willing to pathologize it, but if you feel like seeing a counselor, it's always nice to have someone sane and supportive to talk about your feelings with. If what you've got is a problem, it's one I'd love to have myself.
posted by facetious at 8:59 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You are all superbly helpful and supportive. Much appreciation to you all. I feel better knowing time (and some therapy) will help. Much MeFi love.
posted by LemonGardot at 9:25 PM on December 30, 2010

I'm sure both you and your parents are having to make adjustments pertaining to the parent-child dynamic. It's not easy for them to "let" you stay over with your boyfriend...and it's not easy for you to leave home. It's not easy, but the alternative is a chilling thought (staying home to take care of your capable parents and "growing old" with them!)

They have done their job of raising you, now it is your job to forge your own's how it all works! You get to apply everything they've taught you and from the sounds of it you are off to a very good start.

What you describe (difficulty detaching from parents) can involve boundary issues..and/or enmeshment issues. It is certainly positive to love your family....but you must know that growing up and moving forward into adulthood (where you stand on your own two feet) is the first order of the day.

You are studying nutrition so you want to use your new found knowledge to spare your parents from disease. Understandable, but you have bigger things to worry over and they are likely to live very long lives even without your "rescue". Just do your best to serve as a good example for them. 54 & 57 doesn't seem young to you....but they really have a long time before they are actually OLD (decades).

The best thing you can do is concentrate on school. Make 'em proud! Throw everything you've got into your education...all these other "what if" things are a form of doubt related to the discomfort of "detachment" and a normal fear of the unknown. Put one foot in front of the other instead of thinking way too far ahead and see a counselor if you can't get past your discomfort.

Good Luck...!
posted by naplesyellow at 10:07 PM on December 30, 2010

Your parents are in their late fifties. It is not much more likely that anything terrible will happen to them than it is that it will happen to you, or to your boyfriend or to anyone else you love. They probably have another 30-40 years of life ahead of them.

Enjoy talking to them on the phone and building your own life (not fake!) as an adult.
posted by lollusc at 10:11 PM on December 30, 2010

It is good and "right" for you to leave home now.
There is a possibility that in 20 years or so your parents will need to live with you or need you live with them again.
You will feel much healthier about that decision if you aren't battling resentment and pain because you did NOT take this opportunity to leave the nest while they are able to take care of themselves.
posted by calgirl at 10:27 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You clearly love them a lot. They know that. They put so much into raising you so that you could go out and live an amazing life. I'm sure they wouldn't want hold you back from that. Have you told them your feelings of guilt?
posted by salvia at 11:10 PM on December 30, 2010

Hum. Have you considered moving back to be closer to your family again? I mean, moving out and moving 500 miles away is a big difference (you do not say in your post why you moved so far, presumably for work, so this may not even be an option).

I moved away too, I feel happy here so have no intention of moving back. But if I had this feeling that it would make me a lot happier or calmer to be closer to my mum, hell, I'd probably just pack up and go back. Everyone needs to find their own "balance" in life. For one person that might be the big city and "experiencing lots of new things", while someone else will be quite happy staying in their hometown and living a quiet life. There is no one "right" way to live your life.

Just something to consider.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 5:40 AM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

I used to worry about this. I'm also the eldest and I think it's a disease of eldest children. Most of my family live in Pakistan, and my stomach hurts whenever I see news of a bomb blast. My grandfather is in his 90s; I lived with him for much of my childhood. As a child, whenever my parents went out in the evenings, I would stay awake and wait, in case something happened to them while my eyes were closed. For me, ClarissaWAM's suggestion of moving closer to home wouldn't have helped as I was already living at home.

I even had a similar experience to yours. I'd gone out on a secret date with my-then boyfriend/ now-husband (guilt because dating, especially a non-Pakistani, is a no-no in that society and my father didn't approve) the night I was due to leave for a year in Canada. Whilst I was out, my mother nearly died of violent food poisoning. So not only did I come back after a sneaked night out to an empty, disordered household, with my mother in hospital, I had to leave the next morning to catch a flight to the other side of the world. I had to recognise that no matter how I felt, this was what I had to do, and my parents would get by without me.

I've mostly got over it now, largely by recognising that this fear comes from a superstitious idea that by being there and by thinking like this I can somehow reduce the impact of what might happen -- stopping my father smoking, for instance, or being an uncharacteristically quick thinker in an emergency. Or else, that by experiencing the same trauma, by 'being there', I can share the full experience of fear, hurt and illness and thus avoid survivor's guilt. Your fears might have other root causes: my point is that thinking through them helped me get over them.

Time also helps. When you've been away from home for a year or so, you realise that things go on. Terrible things happen in your absence, but life -- both at home and in your new home -- goes on. (You may, of course, not come to this happy state. An aunt of mine, who is not a self-reflective soul, never has in her two decades living away from her family, and is now in therapy for it.)

And finally: your time to be there for your parents will come. As a Pakistani, I take it for granted that as my parents age, my siblings and I will be responsible for them, and will move our lives around for them as they need, just as our children will for us. It is how the support system for elders works in my country, in the absence of state or social nets, or even pension plans. It might make help you to prepare for an equivalent, eg setting up a savings account and depositing a certain portion of your salary for their emergency or medical needs, etc, so you can feel in control of the practical, if not the emotional.
posted by tavegyl at 7:39 AM on December 31, 2010

Some perspective: I'm 53 and my wife is 56. We're fine. Your parents are also fine. People in their 50s and 60s are no longer "old", at least not in the way they were when I was a kid. You're young and this is the time in your life when you start building the foundation that will define the rest of your life. It's perfectly okay for you to be little selfish and take care of your own needs. Worrying about your parents only takes away from this and quite frankly doesn't do them any good at all.

Some time in the future, perhaps, your parents won't be fine and they'll need you. If you have that foundation you will be in a strong position to care for them. So relax, do what you need to do now and deal with the future when it becomes the present.
posted by tommasz at 8:00 AM on December 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

Listen to Dar William's Closer To Me.

Listening to it always helps me remind myself that I have permission to strike out on my own, that it's developmentally right, that it's even what my parents want for me. Like Dar writes, "I want you to love me with every step you take...the farther you get, the closer to me."

In terms of practical suggestions, have you talked about your anxiety with your parents? If not, maybe it would help to hear them say out loud that they are okay without you and want you to be free, but they'll also always be there for you to drive up to Boston and bring you home if you need that, or for whatever else you might need.

And, yes, I think therapy would help. The intensity and intrusiveness of your thoughts of something happening to them seem it they could signal an anxiety disorder, and my understanding is that it's the sort of thing that usually responds really well to treatment. You deserve freedom.

(But then part of loving people is fearing losing them. Your thoughts seem to come from a very loving place. You just need them to quiet down a bit so you can live your life without worrying all the time.)
posted by zahava at 9:37 AM on December 31, 2010

Although maybe not the norm in our society, your sentiment is a beautiful one and really shows how much you care for your family. That is a value to hold on to, though perhaps no to such a debilitating extent. You can be proud to have such a close relationship with your parents when so many are estranged or merely distance, while simultaneously working on the emotional issues that it brings up in you.

For me, the older child guilt is assuaged by trying to do my best to keep in touch regularly, to send little emails or text messages here and there to let my family know I think of them, to call at least once or twice a week, and to send them parcels and gifts on random occasions. When I visit, I try to be very "present" and not spend alot of time online or watching TV, so I feel that I've made the most of the visit. That way, even though we're hundreds of miles apart, I have done right by them and hopefully won't feel too guilty if something were to happen. Can you set yourself a similar standard, whereby a certain level of contact or care is "enough"?
posted by Pomo at 9:50 AM on December 31, 2010

Some day they will be old and infirm, so there will never be a better time than now to stretch your legs. I'm also oldest and share this anxiety.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:23 PM on December 31, 2010

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