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Illusions of No Choice

Help others whenever you can. But don’t help others with homework because they might score better than you. Don’t go to the bathroom until you finish your current task. Three of the good, bad, and downright weird lessons my parents taught me as a kid.

I’m now thirty-two, and my parents have once again, taught me another lesson; two of them, actually. Both, are about the idea of choice. Or rather, the illusion of having no choice.

They didn’t intend to teach me these lessons. They didn’t intend to teach me anything—they knew their parenting time with me was over. If anything, I became the parent once I turned thirty-two, when I packed my bags and moved almost a thousand miles, back into their house, to be their caregiver.

One person was incredulous when I told him of my plan to move “home.”

“Why would you leave?” he asked. “Why would you give up?”

Give up. As if I wasn’t able to attain the thing that I wanted. That stuck with me. What did he think I was giving up? My job? My life? My future?

In a way, I guess that’s what it was. In a sense, I loved my life. I had a well-paying tech job. I had the freedom to build my days as I pleased. I often stayed out with friends past midnight. I was exploring all sorts of facets of who I was away from the chains that often bind us in the places we grow up in.

But when I moved back in with my parents, suddenly I felt grounded with all kinds of responsibilities. Most of the time, it’s silly, small things, like always answering the phone when my mom calls to ask if I want to eat apple or pumpkin pie. Occasionally, though, it’s serious, like rushing my dad to the hospital. And it’s those times that keep me close to home, away from the late nights, away from an exciting social life.

It reminds me of my other friends, many of whom are married, and many of whom have kids. Most of them have virtually disappeared. I get it, it’s a life change with responsibilities that demand a new social agreement.

“Sorry, I want to, but I can’t,” they say to whatever I invite them to. Can’t have dinner together. Can’t go out dancing. Can’t go hiking.

It might not be said explicitly, but I can hear it in their voice.

“I don’t have a choice.”

I’m sympathetic, to a degree. But the truth is, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you have no choice. Not even for myself.

It’s easy to feel like a certain class of things are now off limits once you have kids. I refuse to accept this. Having kids does not close off a certain set of experiences; it closes off certain versions of those experiences. Maybe you can’t travel by yourself, but you can travel with your kid. You have the opportunity to introduce the kid to a world that’s not only unfamiliar to them, but also to you, and they get to witness you in action doing it. It’s hard. It’s different. And it is rewarding in its own way that solo or couple travel can never be.

And so this is the first lesson I’ve learned with taking care of my parents: Just because I can no longer do a certain form of an activity, doesn’t mean I can’t experience it in a different way.

Sure, I can’t plan my day without any consideration of my parents’ need to see the doctor. I can’t repeatedly stay out past midnight when I know I need a clear head to deal with strange legal issues. I can’t live in a city anymore; I have to live in a quiet suburb with my parents.

But what I can do is evolve those ambitions. I’m learning to wake up early and enjoy the mornings instead. I’m trying to enjoy the slower pace of a suburb and say ‘hi’ to my neighbors, to actually get to know them. And while I can’t go out with my friends as often, I have found the one or two friends who are willing to come eat lunch with my parents instead. They get a chance to see what the caregiving world is like, my parents get to have some social interaction, and I get a little reprieve.

The other lesson is like the first.

It really must be said: Being a caregiver is hard. It’s the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done. There’s that nagging feeling that won’t go away—the feeling that I’m stuck. Truth be told, I really miss my old life. I miss the city. I miss going out. It’s been beyond hard watching my parents descend into physical and mental weakness while also coping with the constant feeling that maybe I’m the crazy one. I haven’t always reacted in good faith. I’ve punched walls. Stormed out of the house. Gotten into shouting matches. Drank way too much in response.

Some of my friends—because they mean well—tell me to move out. It’s my life. Just put them in a nursing home. Force the issue. I do have power of attorney, after all.

My response is almost like my married friends with kids: I have no choice.

My mom often says this. She suffers so much. She herself, from memory issues, essential tremors, physical frailty. But she also suffers because she chooses to tend to my dad. And for her care, he yells at her, berates her, and has no memory of doing it five minutes later. Sometimes even five seconds later.

I bring up the words “nursing home” or “assisted center” and my mom’s reaction is immediate and predictable.

“No…” she always says, “how can I send him there?”

I try to persuade her with answers. I try to give her rationale and logic. And I know I’m right. But being right isn’t always important.

And so I try another angle. I tell her that she’s a good person for taking care of her husband.

To which she scoffs. “I have no choice, Daniel…”

I have no choice

But this is also a lie.

Sometimes you think you don’t have a choice. And maybe you don’t. But I believe there’s still power in choosing to do what you know you’re supposed to do, what you were already going to do. Isn’t that why married couples say “I do” on their wedding days? They already planned to do it. They probably already rehearsed it.

And yet, saying the words that were already in motion, are what finally give the vow its meaning.

My married friends with kids aren’t foregoing that evening hangout because they have no choice; it’s because they love their children even more than they love going out. My mom isn’t refusing to put my dad in some sort of care center because she has no choice; it’s because she believes obedience and loyalty is love.

It is a choice. And yes, these choices do reflect something about you, and your character.

That’s the lesson my parents taught me: You always have a choice. Maybe you should consider those other choices, because they are creative ways to experience another version of what you long for. And maybe you should also consider those other choices, because they are reminders that you’ve already made the right choice.

I’m rarely an “it’s all about the attitude” kind of guy. But in this case, I think it is. Being a caregiver is a hard, long commitment to a life of pain, and I cannot imagine the life of those caregivers who have been doing it for years. But I have to believe it is still a choice; it is a choice you can live out in creatively, and it is a choice you make because of who you are. Because you care.

And that’s something the world could use a lot more of today.