When the Parent/Child Game Plan Changes: Learning How to Let Go

Primary caregiver or not, I will always be Sara's mother, and I will always have her back. Forever and beyond.
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While attending the OMG2014 Cancer Summit for Young Adults in Las Vegas last month, I sat in on a session full of parents talking about the challenges they were facing as caregivers to their young adult children. One recurring theme emerged that struck a chord of memory deep within me: How does a parent know when it's time to let go of the primary caregiver role? It is different for every parent, no doubt. But for me it was extremely clear.

When you become a parent, you promise to keep your child safe and protected from any kind of physical or emotional pain. FOREVER! You assume the role of the primary caregiver, the No. 1 go-to person. The parent/child game plan is in play. And according to that game plan, your child grows up by testing boundaries and demanding more independence as they move into the world of young adulthood.

WHAM BAM! Cancer explodes into the middle of the game plan. Parent and young adult child are stunned beyond belief. In the midst of all the hurt and fear and confusion, normal communications break down. Even for the best of communicators it can happen. It happened to me, my daughter Sara, age 23 and Brad, her boyfriend of four years, on the very first day of Sara's chemo treatment.

As a united team we arrived at the hospital, to learn that Sara's treatment would not begin for another five hours. As I was the main financial support for both Sara and Brad at the time, we decided together that I would go to work for a few hours and return before Sara's chemo treatment began. When I got back to the hospital I discovered that Sara's treatment had already begun. No one had called to tell me. Brad hadn't called me. Sara couldn't call me. Me, the mother. The primary caregiver. The No. 1 go-to person. I was beyond furious. However, I managed to control my tongue until after we got Sara settled for the night. Then I stomped after Brad out to the car park and stuck my finger into his chest.

"Don't you EVER do that again," I raged. "You DO NOT ever forget to call the mother, EVER!"

Well, you can imagine the reaction. Brad got upset. I was upset. And when Sara heard about it, she got upset! WHAM BAM! Parent/child game plan change! It was a big wake-up-call for me, the mother.

The fact was that Sara had NOT insisted that Brad leave the chemo room to call me. This forced me to realize that Sara was no longer my baby girl. She was now a young adult. She asserted that independence by choosing Brad to be her primary caregiver, her No. 1 go-to person that day. In spite of cancer exploding into the middle of the our lives, the parent/child game Plan was actually unfolding as it should. And so, as hard as it was to do, I had to recognize that the time had come for me to step back and let the primary caregiver role pass to Brad. It was time for me to respect Sara as the independent young adult she had become; to abide by the choices she and Brad were making together as a young adult couple.

It took time for us to grow accustomed to our new roles, but we succeeded. Our team reunited and was stronger than ever. And, to their credit, Sara and Brad NEVER EVER forgot to call the mother, EVER AGAIN. And this mother was extremely pleased that we were all clear on that! Primary caregiver or not, I will always be Sara's mother, and I will always have her back. Forever and beyond.

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