Eight months ago, as I was facetiming my mother in Romania, I had a feeling something was not quite right. After some prodding, she reluctantly admitted she hadn’t been feeling well. She didn’t tell me because she didn’t want me to worry. And what could I do from the other side of the world anyway, she said.
Every time I hear about a health concern my mother is dealing with, I panic at the thought of not being there, of soon having to make a difficult decision about what role I will play when things get serious.
Both my partner’s family and mine live overseas and this makes us susceptible to homesickness, to lonely Christmases, to emergency situations when we’re not sure on who to call on for help. Thoughts of moving back are always on our minds, but they generally don’t include images of being our parents’carers.
WhenI left Romania for Australia, my mother was a strong, independent woman, who insisted on carrying my suitcase as she saw me off at the airport. Seventeen years later, we have both morphed into different versions of ourselves. Me into a grown woman, a mother, someone who can navigate the world on her own confidently enough. My mother into a hesitant, more and more vulnerable 62-year old who is increasingly anxious when dealing with unfamiliar situations or places. She still sometimes insists on carrying my suitcase, but we both know it’s not a good idea.
Beyond the weekly facetime sessions, my mother and I see each other once a year. On each visit, I am confronted with the reality that the phone screen doesn’t show: the extra lines, the weight loss, the weaker eyesight, the slight hunch. Even then, I still tell myself: we’re not there yet. Old age is still a long way to come, right?
The shift in who’s looking after who came right after I gave birth to my daughter. Two months later my mother flew over to help us. I had a long list of chores I needed her help with: cooking, cleaning, organising, looking after the baby.
She ended up having to fly back early because of a tumour she discovered in her kidney. As she boarded the plane, I felt guilty for not flying back with her to help navigate the multitude of decisions awaiting. Managing health care across continents and across cultures, was frustrating and hopeless. Still, she recovered well. But something has irreversibly changed.
Transnational families are not unusual in Australia. More like the norm, so I know my experience is that of many. What to do with our ageing and ailing parents overseas, and with the lives we painstakingly built far away from them?
When I visit Romania, relatives ask me: ‘So when are you taking your mother there with you?’. Especially now that I have a child, and two tiny bedrooms of our own.
For many reasons, this is not an option for us. The community ties she has at home, the language barrier, and of course, the more practical issues like the visa and the limited space. I feel guilty for breaking tradition with the women in my family, who all moved with their mothers, or moved their mothers in their own homes with them in old age. So I am busy trying to reinvent a caring family tradition for these times, for the people we are now.
There is a ticking clock on the decision of how to best care for my mother in old age, how to maintain both of our independence and sense of self while doing that. I need a plan.
Do the Japanese or the Scandinavians have some word to package the act of making sacrifices to care for one’s elders into a positive and rewarding stage of life? Something like hashimasu, or foreldag, that would reassure me it’s a desirable and meaningful experience.
In the end, if we decide to move closer to our overseas parents, I think we would have to make it about more than just about being the carers of our parents. Uprooting ourselves would not be without challenges, so I’d need plenty of positives to balance things out. And I’m working on that list already.
Antoanela Safca is a Romanian-born, Melbourne-based freelance writer.