Episode 142: Working Daughters: Your Career + Parent-care

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…when career and caring clash. Caring for parent, that is…

“It seemed inevitable that every time I flew to San Francisco where my company was headquartered, something would come up. The minute I touched down in San Francisco I'd have five voicemails from the nurse at the assisted living.”

“I just remember taking her to one doctor, and one doctor’s appointment took 5 hours and I was thinking, how am I ever gonna do this as one person because she needs to see ten doctors. So how do you do that and still balance your career or progress in your career?”

“It was so all encompassing. And I’d see my guitar in the corner of the room and see my friends and peers doing their lives, oh, a CD released, Grammy nomination here…”

Three women, in corporate and creative jobs on their careers plus caregiving…coming up on The Broad Experience.

If you’ve been listening to the show since the beginning you may remember an episode I did several years ago called Home as Career Killer. One of my guests in that show was Liz O’Donnell. She’d been writing about women and work for quite a while and she had just published a book called Mogul, Mom and Maid – Liz was her family’s sole breadwinner at the time.

A few years ago I noticed that she’d switched tack in what she was posting about online. She’d shifted to talking about the issues around being a working woman who’s caring not just for her kids – but for her parents. In 2016 she wrote a great piece in The Atlantic called The Crisis Facing America’s Working Daughters. I meant to get back in touch with her then – but it was only this past autumn, when I faced a crisis with my own mother back in London…that I really began to think about this issue properly. I wasn’t expecting to be hit with caregiving stuff in my forties – but in the fact the typical caregiver is a woman in her late forties or fifties. Usually she has kids and a job as well.  

Enter Liz. Liz founded an online community called Working Daughter – a website, a Facebook group – she also has an upcoming book of the same name. The subtitle: a guide to caring for your aging parents while making a living.  

And that’s all in her spare time. She works at a PR firm – she was fulltime until last year.

The working daughter stage of Liz’s life began in earnest several years ago. She was in her late forties, her parents were in their 80s. They lived fairly close to her in Massachusetts. One day in particular got her thinking about this group of women who are juggling work and parent care.  

“I had taken a day off from work so that I could take my mother to the doctor and I got up at 5:00 to send some work e-mails. Then at 6:00 I was getting the kids out the door to school. Then I drove, my mother’s about an hour away from me, drove down to take her to the doctor and she wasn't ready to go. I had to push the appointment back. The doctor that day asked me why I worked and didn't quit to spend more time with my mother? It was a brutal day.” 

Later that night…about 11p.m, as she drove home from a talk she’d given to a group of working mothers, she thought, why on earth isn’t there more attention to working daughters? The idea for an online community was born. 

Meanwhile, her own life was getting more complicated. Both her parents were failing in different ways…one weekend her sister – who doesn’t live nearby – called and told Liz that she’d been on the phone to their parents and something was wrong. Could Liz go over and check on them? That was a Sunday. Liz drove off…and didn’t come home till one week later. Much of that time was spent in hospitals trying to get diagnoses. Her father was very confused, her mother was ill and couldn’t be left alone. 

“And I was so busy and so overwhelmed by everything I was witnessing and handling that I never told work. I work remotely. I never even told work that I wasn't at work and I would just try to answer enough emails every night and in the morning so it looked like I was at work, and I wasn't trying to fool anyone, I just really couldn't stop and say ‘Whoa, this is what's happening.’ So if you fast forward to right before the day they were diagnosed, I remember I was at the hospital, my dad was then sent to, and I found a quiet space and there happened to be a wheelchair. And I sat down and I called my boss and said, here's what's going on in my life.”

And her boss was quite sympathetic.

“So her first thing she said was, ‘you know you need to take care of yourself,’ which are the six most annoying words I think that a caregiver can ever hear because we know we need to take care of ourselves but we don't know how to take care of ourselves. And she asked me how I wanted to handle the situation, and I as the breadwinner I said ‘I want to keep working. You know, I'll figure this out.’”

But that was before she received two diagnoses. On July 1st 2014, Liz was told her father had Alzheimer’s and her mother had ovarian cancer. A couple of weeks later she saw her boss in person.

“…and I walked into the hotel where we're meeting up to go see a client, and I just burst into tears. And I'd been trying not to get to that point with her because I knew what she was going to say which was you need to take a leave of absence. And I was terrified that she would say that because I couldn't afford to take a leave of absence. So I was trying to hide it. I knew she was right, but I also knew that it wasn't right for me. So we talked it through and I said I can do this, but I went part time, and we agreed that I would have a flexible schedule, and some days I would work in the morning and some days I would work at night, and I would let the team know day to day what I was doing.”

She says she lost out financially but at the time there was so much going on, it had to be that way. Liz’s mother opted not to be treated for the cancer and she died several months later. Liz went back to fulltime work right after the funeral. Meanwhile Liz’s dad was now living at an assisted living facility just down the street from Liz and her family – she’s married with two teenagers.

And for a couple of years she says things were pretty good. Her dad’s Alzheimer’s seemed to be under control; they had some good times as a family. But then things began to go downhill.

It seemed inevitable that every time I flew to San Francisco where my company was headquartered, something would come up. The minute I touched down in San Francisco I'd have five voicemails from the nurse at the assisted living. You know, he didn't seem well, can I take him to the doctor, or you know something came up.

We live in the Northeast and we had a really big snowfall one winter and my father kept stealing the shovels and going out and shoveling, because he didn't think the facility was doing a good enough job. And of course they didn't want this 89-year-old man who was a fall risk out shoveling. So they'd call me and say ‘you need to talk him,’ and I'd be across the country.”

That said, she knows she’s fortunate compared to many other employees who work day to day in an office or a factory. Where if they disappear to take a parent to the doctor or deal with a sudden crisis, they’re afraid of looking bad…or worse, losing their job.

“So absolutely, there are advantages to the fact that I'm remote and I have…you know there are also advantages to the fact that I'm fairly senior in my career and flexibility is born of building trust and seniority over time. On the other hand, I don't have the same camaraderie necessarily with my co-workers. I needed to lean on them quite a bit so that if I couldn't finish something and I was leaving in the morning I needed them to take over and I didn't quite have the same rhythms and relationships that you might have if you're sitting next to someone every day. So that was tough.”

Then, last year, the same year her father died, Liz’s job was downsized. She was moved to part-time. And she’s never going to know how much her caregiving had to do with that – or IF it had to do with that. But she can’t help thinking all the flextime she took over the years might have affected the company’s view of her.

“Part of it was circumstantial across what was happening in our industry and in the business. But, and part of this might be in my head, but I never felt Ashley like I got back to the status and the security and the influence that I had at work or in my career.”

She says a couple of things are at play when it comes to perceptions of professionals like her…

“One is that we don't tend to work at the same company for years like we used to. So where I earned my street cred and my ability to be flexible wasn't necessarily at the firm that I was at now. So the younger staff didn't know that I had already paid my dues, and they come in and they see this older woman and she's always leaving and she's not at her desk or she's not on Slack or instant message. They don't know how hard I've worked and what my abilities are, necessarily. So I think that's a factor for a lot of people who need to take flex is that we work at so many different companies, people don’t necessarily see the progression…and the other thing I think is that eldercare is invisible.

So when you have a new baby, your coworkers throw you a shower and your friends throw you a shower and everyone…you come in on your maternity leave and you bring the baby and everybody oohs and aahs, and then you bring pictures, and people expect that when you come back from that leave that you might have shifted a little bit or that you have other priorities in addition to your career, and it's talked about. But when you're caring for an aging parent you're really ultimately facing down dying and death and nobody wants you to bring that up in the office.”

Liz says life for working daughters can certainly improve…we will come back to that later in the show.

I’m meeting Maria Toropova in Brooklyn, in the empty apartment she just rented for her and her mum. She’s a member of Liz’s online community, Working Daughter, and we’d spoken by phone before I showed up at her new place. It’s new construction, and the apartment isn’t large by non-New York standards, but it has two floors. The upstairs bathroom is sleek but compact…

“This is the tiniest sink you’ll ever see in your life…”

Maria’s bedroom is downstairs in the basement…

“The only thing that kills me is that there are no windows…[laughs] it’s actually a really decent size for New York…half bath, separate entrance…” [Fade under trax…]

Until last summer Maria was like a lot of other young professionals in New York. She was 29, sharing a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village with a roommate, putting in long hours at the office. Seeing friends after work, going for long runs along the Hudson River to de-stress.

Her mum was living in St. Louis, where Maria grew up. Maria and her parents emigrated to the US from Russia when she was 12 years old. They’re originally from Azerbaijan. Her father died a year after they arrived in America. Ever since, it’s been just Maria and her mum.

Her mother used to work as a computer engineer…since arriving in the US, she’s worked long hours as a home health aide.

Maria works for a big financial services company. She’s in training and development. And she was at the office last August when she got a call that changed her life.

She works in a building with terrible cell phone reception. And the summer is a really busy time for her. So when she noticed a voicemail from her mom’s friend back home, she thought, I’ll pick it up later. 

“I got a voicemail from her friend, I didn’t think anything of it, a few hours later it was still there. I went into a room to listen, I couldn’t get whole voicemail as the reception was so poor, I just heard words like hospital and stroke, so I called her friend back but I couldn’t get the full picture, so I had to get on a landline in a private office, obviously at that point quite emotional and trying to find out what happened, and that’s when I found out she had a stroke the night before.” 

Maria’s mother had been able to call her friend the following morning and say, please go to work for me, there’s something wrong. But because she’d waited half a day before she got help, the stroke did quite a bit of damage. 

Maria’s boss took her home from the office and she flew out to St. Louis that evening…

“She was in the ICU when I got there, she was in the ICU quite a bit, then in hospital and in rehab, so I was completely off the grid…took 2 weeks of time off. And as she transferred to in-patient rehab, I said I thought I could go back to working remotely. And I have said this a lot, I’m incredibly lucky, I have an incredible boss, he’s the most incredible human being I’ve ever met, professionally and otherwise, the kindest human, he stood behind me and so did the company, and that meant the world and still does. With that we were able to work out a remote work arrangement.”

Maria had a ton on her plate. She was visiting her mother in rehab, talking to doctors, handling reams of paperwork. Then her mother came home and Maria was taking care of her and working flexible hours from the house. In the fall, she felt herself crumbling.

“At first I started to get a lot of bad anxiety, panic attacks, I thought I was having a stroke, as time moved on I fell into, I think the diagnosis was severe depression, so… but at first I think I was functioning on adrenalin but it caught up to me in November/December time, and that’s when I took a leave of absence from work.”

Maria went on disability leave. She found a good psychiatrist in St. Louis and she’s been seeing her ever since. She says any kind of therapy is frowned upon in her immigrant community, but she thinks it’s saved her life – her words.

She says again, her workplace and her manager in particular have been supportive over everything she’s been through…

“…even with that said I still found myself struggling, because I do have a demanding job, and trying to balance it all, first you get this influx of information and bills, I think I took 2 boxes of paperwork here with me [to New York]. So it was balancing that and still making sure I was always – putting my job family first and making sure I am giving that 150% and at some point I just felt like it wasn’t possible.”

No kidding. Maria was putting a lot of pressure on herself. And when her mother came home, that was when she realized just how intense her new role was going to be. 

“…and once she was home and I was her sole 24/7 caregiver, she was fine for periods of time and I had friends helping out, but I just remember taking her to one doctor, and one doctor’s appointment took 5 hours and I was thinking, how am I ever gonna do this as one person because she needs to see ten doctors, and it just literally took half of my day. So how do you do that and still balance your career or progress in your career?”

She honestly doesn’t know. She’s still at the start of all this.

She says her mom has recovered well from the stroke in many ways – she’s walking and talking. But she has cognitive difficulties now, like a much older person might. Her mum is 65. Maria says her mom is dying to go back to work as a home health aide, but Maria’s not sure that’ll happen. 

She has a big support network in St. Louis, but she’s just sold the family home, and rented this place in Brooklyn for the two of them.

AM-T: “Why did you decide to move back here to this difficult city?”

“Yes, so I think unfortunately my mom has literally worked 70 hour weeks, every single week, she’s taken one vacation in the last 17 years…due to the fact we are an immigrant family, I knew this time would come where I would fully support her, so it was just…I didn’t necessarily expect it to come in the way that it did…and financially we need assistance…she has no income except for very small social security checks…so it’s imperative that I keep my job, which is obviously here, and I found out through resources available to me through work that New York is one of the best states for public assistance for healthcare. That largely drove my decision.”

She says back in Missouri she was told the most economical option would be to have her mother live in a nursing home. Something Maria can barely contemplate.

AM-T: “Talk a bit about that – you talked about this on the phone, about culture and how you would never have your mum living other than where you are.” 

“Yeah, so I think a lot of my personal struggles and relationship with my mom have been driven by that cultural gap – so she just turned 65, I’m about to be 30, so we have a very different age gap as well as a cultural gap, she grew up in the Soviet Union in a very conservative country within the Soviet Union, I largely grew up here so my ideas are very much American, but the value set is still rooted in me from that Eastern European society, so I’ve always struggled with that ‘cause in Russia or any other Eastern European cultures back in the day and still now, it’s common to have multi-generational households, and a lot of the parents’ happiness and sense of self comes from their children…and in America it’s very much centered around the individual…so growing up here, and I’ve always struggled with that. What would make my mom happy versus what would make me happy? And so now having lived with her under same roof and having lived with her having gone through this illness those issues have surfaced even more…in terms of, even here I’m gonna be moving into the basement, how much privacy will I have because privacy is not something that’s really valued, at least in the culture that I grew up whereas in America it very much is…um…and so I think that will kind of play into it, at the same time I can’t imagine, just because she’s very young, she’s only 65, and again it’s a very personal choice, I have no judgment, everyone has to make the right choice for them, but for me personally, I can’t imagine leaving her in a nursing home right now…even though that’s what she’s saying I should be doing because she’s worried I’m giving up my life to take care of her.” 

Maria says life in New York with her mum – it’s going to be different from the old, relatively carefree days before last August. She used to joke with her colleagues with kids, how do you look after them after a hard day at work? Now, she’ll be in a similar position. 

AM-T: “What do you think about the prospect of going back to work? When you think about that what do you think?”

“I think it’s a two-parter – I think equally excited and overwhelmed. Excited, when I was talking about whether I move back or not, in a way it’s survivalist instinct where I get parts of my own life back, the ones that I could, and work was a huge element of that, and going back into the environment that I know, and I love my team, the people I work with, so I’m looking forward to that and daily interactions. Overwhelmed, where I know how seriously I took my job and how I’ll likely feel when I return. I had the luxury of staying late when I needed to and coming in early, and now I’ll pretty much have limitations around that. Sort of figuring out how that’s gonna play into my job function and just career, long-term, I wonder will I able to go on a business trip again and how that’s gonna affect my career prospects. I think I mentioned I was set on international career opportunities, and recognizing that’s no longer an option, so figuring out what that means for my career going forward. 

AM-T: “Yeah, didn’t you say you’d been hoping to go to London?”

“I did, yes, so I did share that with my boss and he was obviously very supportive, and ironically I was thinking of the timeline to do that right around the time she got sick, so just, I guess, trying to figure out what that means for my career in the long-term.”

She’s taking things one day at a time. She knows her mum will have trouble adjusting to the change once she moves here, but she hopes they’ll gradually find their feet together. She feels the responsibility of being the sole wage earner and carer, still, she says she can make it work.

“Part of the beauty of the city is it is so full of different possibilities, there’s no tunnel vision, there’s still artists and musicians and struggling artists, quote unquote, that are surviving here, so I don’t think it’s impossible, I just think it’s gonna be a little bit different…”

Maria and her mother have already been through a lot together. And Maria has good friends and supportive colleagues. She hopes with help, the two of them can weather this change as well.

You met Kate Schutt in the first of two shows I did recently on the coaching industry. Kate is a coach, but she’s also trained as a musician and her long-time career has been as a singer/songwriter. Not an easy career at the best of times.

Like Maria, she became a carer unexpectedly. In her case, she was in her late 30s. And just about to leave on a work trip she was quite excited about…

“I was headed to an extended gig in the middle east, in Doha, Qatar, I was gonna play guitar and sing in a fancy hotel there, I had negotiated my contract…I had my two guitars in my duffel bag packed and would be there for at least a month, maybe more…I went home to say goodbye to my parents, it was a Friday, I was leaving on a Monday, got out of the car and my mom did not look well at all. And just from the expression on her face I knew something was up, and that’s when she told me she’d been having these symptoms, she had had a CAT scan and was waiting for the results of that CAT scan to come in.”

While Kate was there, the results came back. Her mother had a tumor in her abdomen and a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Kate decided then and there that her work trip was off.

“I asked my dad to take me back to the train station, I took a train back to New York, I unpacked, I re-packed, took one guitar and a small bag back to Pennsylvania where my family home is, and moved into a childhood bedroom and became my mom’s primary caregiver.”

Kate says she adored her mother. She wanted to be with her while she went through what they all knew would be grueling treatment. She says it was absolutely her choice to do this. Unlike Maria who has to support her mother financially, Kate’s family could support her while she took care of her mother, interacted with doctors, and ferried her to and from hospital visits.

I asked what role her father played.

“My dad was my wingman, he was her loving partner of decades of marriage but I like to just say he’s an old school dad, he was incapable of quarter-backing this care. It was extremely complicated as anybody who has been through anything like this or any dealings with the western medical system, it was…there were lots of decisions to make constantly with half or less than half information.”

She says he just wasn’t the person to handle all that.

Kate says handling it was a fulltime job. She had less and less time to even think about her own life, her own career.

“It was so all encompassing. And I’d see my guitar in the corner of the room and see my friends and peers and mates, doing their lives, oh, a CD released, oh, Grammy nomination here, oh, new body of music, tour with this person…it was a very strange experience. I guess the thing I would say was I did not feel like myself. That’s what I kept saying to my partner; I said, I don’t recognize myself. And for me certainly in the beginning there was so much to do…to get her through the major de-bulking surgery, front line chemo, I would literally put her to bed at night and face plant on the bed, and if I had an hour free, which would be early morning before she woke up, I had to exercise because that’s how I process my stress. So it was like exercise and process my stress, or pick up my guitar, and at that point I was unable to pick up my guitar.”

Kate and her family knew the cancer would end her mother’s life. But they strove to give her as good a life as she could have while she was going through treatment. Kate says it was a privilege to take care of her. Their relationship deepened as time went on.

“I had years to talk about the most important questions in life: like where do you think you go when you die, do you think you go anywhere? What does living a good life mean to you? Who do you want to spend your time with now it’s so precious, and why does that person get more of your time than not? What do you really care about getting done before you die?”

Kate’s mum lived for four years after that diagnosis, and Kate was there the whole time. By the end, she was totally spent. Exhausted mentally and physically.

Both she and her dad took some time to recover. She says it took another year to get her dad’s life back on track, not to mention her own.

AM-T: “And when you got back on the other side of that when you were strong enough to function as a working person…did you really feel that, were you like, yup, I really have lost 4 years and I notice that?”

“Yeah, I feel it every day when I sit down to practice my guitar. I mean I spent 5 years not practicing daily. Everyone who plays an instrument knows you can’t expect yourself to perform as an instrumentalist or a musician and not be working on your craft…when I wasn’t doing that…and you know my story a little, so you know eventually I started writing notes toward writing songs…so it wasn’t like for the whole 4 years it was just fixing meals and going to the hospital. Sure there was, after I got my feet under me a year and a half into it… I started to be able to make notes towards the thing I’m now working on, which is making this album, but this morning, sitting down to practice my guitar, that’s why I say I have to remind myself I can’t be upset at myself, that’s a choice I made, if I’m frustrated with where I am as a player partly it’s because for five years I didn’t do anything on my instrument.”

She says her earning power as a musician has taken a hit too…

“Earning power and earning potential is real—I mean you’re only young enough to have verve and energy to pursue your career…I mean hopefully we’re all living longer and with a lot of energy, but I believe in that stuff. If I wanted to go out and get a job even now, I’m 43 about to be 44, that’s an old age to be starting something new. So I felt like, yeah, I wasn’t building anything publicly, let’s put it that way, I was writing notes toward songs -- gee whiz, good for you…nothing that anybody would look at and say that has value, in our world today. I mean the thing I know, and I’m getting choked up, is I know what kind of a person it takes to do that work…and that’s probably where your listeners will meet me, is because it’s a very different person who says yes to that challenge, and I have to believe, I have to, otherwise I might as well go off myself, I have to believe there was a meaning for my music, for my soul, for my friends and loved ones, that me going through that experience was meant for, quote unquote, was teaching me something about what it means to live.”

Kate did a TED talk last year about how to help someone cope with a loss – I will link you to that under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

If you’re in the position of caring for a parent while holding down a job, much will depend on where you work. Or who your manager is. Maria Toropova has been lucky in that regard. Liz O’Donnell of Working Daughter says women in her community have experiences that are all over the place. She says American employers are getting better at trying to offer some formal help…

“We're seeing more and more companies crop up here in the U.S. that are selling into employers, we will help your employee find backup care. We will help your employees sort through the checklist of things that they need to do to provide care. So companies are now starting to contract these companies and offer these services, so that’s part of it."

Then there’s the cultural part. She says if we could just talk about all this a bit more…

“And I don't believe we should all go in and share our personal information in the workplace every day, but if we at least give the space if somebody wants to talk about it or learn not to run away in horror if somebody brings up, ‘I just came from hospice before I showed up for work’ or ‘I'm heading to hospice you know on my way home tonight,’ if we just started to normalize that, give it some space then I think that would help and we see working parent groups all the time at large corporations and small ones too. I don't know that we have many formalized support groups for people who have parents.”

And in a work-centric culture like America’s, many carers are forced to decide: Work, or family?

“There are a number of women that I can think of who have told us in the group that they've lost their job as a result of caregiving or not necessarily that they were fired as a result of caregiving, but they didn't feel that they could manage both work and care. I think one of the things that people don't realize also about caregiving is how many medical tasks caregivers can be doing. Not all of us but some people are going to work whether it's a desk job or a shift job and then coming home and they're giving injections, they're changing colostomy bags, they're sorting 14 pills at a time. This is stuff that you think you need to have medical training, the nursing school or medical school for, and daughters and sons are doing it every day. So that's a huge responsibility and a huge stress. So how do you go to work on top of all of that?”

And Liz says there’s another part of all this. Something that’s beyond the realm of HR…

“And that’s the part companies can’t necessarily help with, right – the emotional part, and there’s a huge emotional part, because you're having to come to terms with the fact that your parent isn't able to do what they used to do, and you have to come to terms with the fact that that also means that they may not be there for you in the way you're used to them being there for you. It definitely, definitely shakes your identity. And people talk a lot about this idea of it's a role reversal. And I like to shy away, move away from that term. I mean in a sense it is a role reversal, I'm caring for you versus you caring for me. But the reason I'm not crazy about that term is I prefer to think of it just as a natural stage in life. You know when you're young you have a child parent relationship and then as an adult you hope you can have an adult-adult relationship with your parents and then as they get older I just like to think of it as yet another phase…”

A phase where the relationship naturally shifts –and why not normalize it, she says, because it’s going to happen to us.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time…thanks to Liz O’Donnell, Maria Toropova and Kate Schutt for being my guests on this show. I will link you to Liz’s community Working Daughter and to Kate’s TED talk under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

 As ever I am keen to hear from you – if you have anything you’d like to add to the discussion you can comment under this episode on the website or tweet me or email or post on the Facebook page.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening, see you next time.