Monday, April 25, 2016


I’m hiring a housekeeper, something I said I would never do again.  It’s unlikely there’s anyone out there that could live up to my standards.  I’m the only one that will get every crumb from under the kitchen table, every smudge from the refrigerator door, and every single germ off the bathroom floor.  I was tutored by the best—my mother, the Cleaning General.  She taught me to respect “clean”, to get under the bed to search for dust bunnies and to rub out any sign of filth even if it was on the pipes in the basement.

Mother said someday those tasks would be an important part of my role as a wife and mother, that I would be judged by the polish on the credenza and smoothly combed hair of my children.  These were rules in familial relationships in the 50’s and I followed the teaching religiously for the first seven years of my married life.

Then I went to work outside the home.  I still tried to be all things for all people, but over time I began to shrink under the weight of the added tasks. Reality took over.  One husband and a sink full of dishes later and I was in a new reality, an independent woman with two kids and a career.

Then Joe come along and we married and successfully negotiated a new set of marital roles.  After I retired, I began to revert back to my gut level values as the one responsible for the home.  Oh, I carried on with creative outlets in art and theatre but my chief focus was Joe and my role as a wife and now grandmother.

Then one day Al showed up.   I watched as this cunning adversary began to systematically rob Joe of his independence and slowly disable him physically and mentally while at the same time stealing my identity. 
I’m not talking about what’s in my wallet.  I’m talking about something far more important, my well established familial role as Joe’s wife and partner.

How could Al do that?

I think of myself as having both a wife and a caregiver identity. If I’d drawn a pie chart before Joe’s disease was identified, all of the pie (the whole pie) would be wife identity, encompassing our version of a typical domestic marital relationship.  (This is a slippery slope because today there are new typical married relationships, very different from those 20 or 30 years ago.  Today couples develop a rhythm to their married lives that works for them; he does this, and she does that.  If I’m an accountant, I might manage the family money, or if Joe is a chef, he might manage the kitchen.  For us as a couple, that would be our typical martial relationship.)

Now because Al (the cat burglar) is insidiously slow, changes in role identity/responsibilities happen gradually.  For me, caregiving began as I took on tasks that were not part of my typical division of marital labor; in our case it was financial planning, paying bills, house and car repairs, tax preparation, administering medications, and so on.  So a slice of my pie gradually became caregiver identity. 

Time passed and the weight of these tasks has grown heavier as my wife identity has shrunk.  It (wife identity) now represents only about a half of the pie chart; as Joe’s needs for care advance, and without a way to off-load some of my growing responsibility, eventually the wife identity portion of that pie would all but disappear.  At that point Al, the master thief, would have successfully stolen my wife identity.

And by the way, just as I’m moving more and more into the caregiver identity, Joe is steadily moving out of his typical role in the family relationship, and has many of the same struggles with loss of identity that I have.  (I’ve written a blog about the battle of the steering wheel.)  But things as small as not being the one to pay the check in a restaurant or pumping your gas resonate as losses for Joe.

So maybe having a housekeeper won’t be so bad.  Maybe it will allow me to focus more on just being Joe’s wife and chief supporter, without some of my ridiculously dated identity clichés that have become burdens.  I know that other transitions in our relationship are inevitable, but I’m okay just moving one foot in front of the other, staying ahead of Al, the Identity Thief, as long as I can.

This week we returned to the surgeon for another bout with skin cancer.  This time it was on Joe’s ear.  We thought the procedure might require a bit of plastic surgery, so I asked Joe if he would agree to a skin graft or just go with a tortured genius look of Vincent Van Gogh.  Somehow Joe didn’t think that was funny. 

It turns out, historians argue that Vincent may have made up the whole story about cutting off his ear, that it was actually ripped off in a fight with a friend.  Who can you trust?

Forget the Pie Chart...I ate it.