Breakfast for Mom

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Nothing makes me crazier than fixing my mom’s oatmeal. And it’s not even steel cut oats or Quaker quick oats – it’s instant oatmeal. It takes eighty seconds to cook, but a virtual eternity to get ready.

Mom is particular about her oatmeal. She likes it a certain way: made with milk, never water, craisins added before heating, apple slices and walnuts added after, and finally more milk added to both cool the oats and smooth out the consistency. No one would know how particular she was about her oatmeal if she could make it herself. But she can’t.

I know now why Kings and Queens needed cupbearers and food tasters

I cook oatmeal every morning for my mother because I live in her house. For the past six months my wife and I, our kids, and a service dog have all lived together with my parents in their house.

Mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 1988. Since then she’s suffered a sometimes slow, sometimes quick, but always progressive decline of her faculties, especially vision, balance, coordination, and touch. There are different types of MS – Mom’s is the kind that only gets worse.

Last fall Mom’s health declined again. My wife and I wanted to help meet her growing needs but we found even small requests, to pickup detergent or help put jewelry on, required tremendous coordination and sacrifice. One car, two small kids, three different naptimes, and five meals or snacks made it virtually impossible for us to help on short-notice.

We realized however, the very same schedule that made helping so complicated, matched well with Mom’s daily rhythms and needs. Between the meals, snacks, little excursions, and large midday naps, our pace was a great match for helping Mom. Essentially, we were living similar lives in different locations. And so, in February my wife, three-year-old daughter, and one-year-old son, and I moved in to help take care of my mom.

I thought moving in to my parents’ house would feel strange but it didn’t – which made me feel weird. I thought the hardest part of caring for my mom would be driving to appointment after appointment, but it wasn’t. Making breakfast is the hardest part, hardest by a mile.

After making Mom’s breakfast for the past six months I know now why Kings and Queens needed cupbearers and food tasters. It wasn’t spies or assassins the monarchs were worried about, they needed protection from the cooks. Disgruntled, under-appreciated, servants with mountains of frustrations and years of hurts are the last people you want preparing your food.

And I don’t blame them, the cooks that is. What’s more frustrating than slaving over a meal, desperately trying to time everything right, only to have the Queen sit down in her chair and then get up to feed the service dog the moment breakfast is served?

I have no idea why that dog isn’t making itself breakfast in the first place. Our service dog must have missed the weeks on personal care and hygiene, when they taught her classmates how to fix meals for themselves and vacuum up their fur. I think we need another service dog to help care for this one.

In a world free of kids and time and urges to use the bathroom Mom’s oatmeal specifications would still be maddening. But in our house, in the chaos of the morning, when she asks for a couple more craisins or a little less milk I want to put her scooter on blocks.

To be fair I’m partly at fault, for the chaos, that is. In the morning when our kids wake up we leave them in their bedroom as long as good parents can. Two haggard, disheveled excuses for adults, we do this because we are desperately and unendingly tired. Forget showering in the morning, I try to freshen up with a new pair of underwear.

When we open our kids’ door we’re releasing twelve hours of pent up needs. We use a triage system to quickly decide who is attended to first based on the degree of urgency. I know there’s a better way – it’s called a nanny – but we try to organize the disorder as best we can. We are an avalanche of needs, and everything falls towards the kitchen table.

If April is the cruelest month, breakfast is the cruelest meal. In our house in the morning, no one is ready for the day, every person’s needs are close to the surface, and blood sugar levels are dangerously low. My wife is far more patient than I, so she sits in between the children biding time while I dance around the kitchen, toasting English muffins and stirring Miralax into orange juice glasses. The juice and muffins buy me just enough time to cut fruit, pour cereal, and prepare Mom’s “instant” oatmeal.

As a caregiver I don’t cook, I feed people. I have more in common with the zookeeper in the penguin house with a bucketful of fish than I do with any chef, short order or cordon bleu. Cooking is fun – feeding people is not.

Food prep, in general, is thankless work. Except for the privileged few with cooking shows or their own restaurants, it’s hard and unrecognized labor. Cooking meals takes time, energy, and focus precious few have. Add hungry kids, an unloaded dishwasher, and a full bladder and you have the emotional equivalent of an air traffic controller on his/her first day.

This insight has given me a newfound respect for caregivers. I understood the physical side of caregiving but I didn’t appreciate the emotional and psychological toll of caring for a loved one. Making meals, cleaning, and running errands are tiresome chores, a boring but necessary ritual of life. This isn’t unique to caregiving – everyone knows what it’s like to grocery shop after work or scrub a toilet. The difference for caregivers is the added stress of the human element, affectionately referred to as “relationships”.

My relationship with my mom is strong, full of love and respect. We genuinely enjoy one another’s company, which is more than many individuals giving and receiving care can say. And yet, respecting Mom’s independence while providing care is really difficult for me. When I’m cranky and she’s sassy, it’s hard to set out the spoon that helps her to eat; close the garage door when she asks; or add a tomato to the tuna sandwich I already made. But I do all these things even when I don’t want to, because she can’t.

We won’t live in my parents’ house forever – living here was always only a short-term solution – someone else will care for Mom long-term. We’ll go back to caring only for our kids, who are multiplying like rabbits. We’ll live in our own house and have new and different problems. And when we do I’ll be grateful for my experience here, because caring for little kids is like caregiving on training wheels, whereas caring for a parent is like learning to ride a unicycle – it is as hard and awkward as it looks.

Our time living at home is good practice for parenting, especially parenting older kids. Which is important because at the rate they’re going, my kids are going to be teenagers before I know it. And as hard as that will be, to provide care and still respect their independence, at least I’ll have some experience in the balancing act.

Plus, how hard can caregiving be when the kids sleep in ’til noon?