Róisín Ingle on the Put Upons
I REMEMBER YEARS ago, when Gay Byrne reigned supreme on RTÉ radio every morning instead of reigning supreme every Sunday on Lyric FM, him reading out a letter from a woman living, I think, on Ailesbury or Shrewsbury Road in Dublin, both of which streets live eternally purple in my mind on account of years spent staring at the Monopoly board.
I must have only been a teenager, but I’ve never forgotten her story.
The woman lived alone in a big house and the only time her children bothered to visit was Christmas Day. In the letter she told Gay that this year she’d prefer if they didn’t come. She couldn’t believe she had reared such an uncaring, thoughtless bunch of people. If she was alone, she reckoned, she may as well be fully alone on Christmas Day, the same as every other day. But she knew she would go through the charade, the house full of well-meaning visitors and cinnamon-scented cheer for at least part of this one day, their overburdened consciences eased for another year. She would shut the door and think about all the things she could never tell her children to their faces. So instead, as so many people did then, she told Gay.
She was an older woman then, I’m sure she’s long gone now but I thought about her the other day when I was in contact with a woman who calls herself one of the Put Upons. That’s the term this woman, Marion, uses for the grown-up children who provides the bulk of the day-to-day love, care and attention for an ageing parent while the rest of the family do virtually nothing. Marion thought she was the only one with “selfish, uncaring” siblings until she started to talk to friends and discovered a wider community of Put Upons. But knowing she is not the only one doesn’t make it any easier.
Marion is in her 50s, working full time and angry. She thinks the main reason she is a Put Upon is because she lives the closest to her mother. In the beginning, when problems were smaller, it made sense for her to be the one taking action when any issues arose. But then her mother got older and Marion found herself in charge of making all the hospital appointments and bringing her to them and sorting out all the confusion over prescriptions. She does her mother’s shopping every week and brings bread and milk when she runs out, and sorts it when she has no batteries for the remote and organises a repair man for the telly or buys a new one if it’s really kaput. When she can’t do a particular thing, her husband and her children help out.
Oh, she knows there is a list of reasons as long as their arms why the other siblings can’t help out. They live abroad, or they are working, or they are on holidays, or they can’t afford the taxi fare to come and see her, or they have other members of extended family to care for, or they are just busy. Always busy. Too busy to agree to her requests for family meetings, or to come up with a rota so that the family can take turns making Sunday dinner. When their mother asks another sibling for help the reply is often “did you ask Marion?” She has become the de facto daughter. The default daughter. She feels like an only child and she feels taken for granted, as though her time isn’t as important as theirs.
I asked if she tells them how she feels, but she doesn’t, fearful that they won’t see her point of view and that it will cause ructions in the family. She also worries that they will tell their mother, which will make her feel like a burden – something she already suspects she is.
Marion would like her siblings to know a few things. That their mother spends far too much time alone and – look, it’s not rocket science – this means she is often lonely. One day Marion called to the house at 6pm and the lock was still on the door from the night before.
Their mother cries at night. Did they know? Their mother loves all her children and grandchildren, worries about them, talks constantly about their exploits. She longs for regular visits from them, something to look forward to. She wishes that when she rang and left them messages that they would be returned instead of ignored. Their mother is good and kind and, yes, needy but neediness, believes Marion, is not a crime in older age.
Why do Marion and the other Put Upons carry on as the default daughters or sons? “Because we love our parents. And we know we will have great memories, laughs and tender moments with them that the others lose out on.” In the end, the Put Upons win, she reckons. They have the “privilege” of supporting their older parents through their old age. They will bear no guilt when they go. And yet they also know how much richer their parents’ life would be if the others played their part.
As well as saying she’s a Put Upon, Marion also thinks she is a wimp for not wanting to rock the family boat. But she’s not a wimp. She’s a warrior for her mother. She just wishes there were others taking up arms in the name of unconditional love and battling together for the same cause.
In other news . . . a friend doing research is looking for help finding daughters in their late-30s, 40s or 50s who have difficult relationships with their ageing mothers and are actively seeking ways to make them better before it’s too late. If you are that person or know someone who fits the bill please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org