“Be the daughter,” the oncologist told me as I sat with her, the chaplain, and the oncology social worker. We were sitting in the family waiting room and they were helping me navigate a difficult moment about five months into my mother’s lost-cause battle with cancer. These women felt like part of my family by now, and I was stung by the words even though I could feel the truth inside them.
At issue was my mother’s sudden bout of paranoia, during which she had accused me of conspiring with her doctors to keep her in the hospital. My initial reaction had been to try to argue logic with her, which had only made the situation worse. I’d left the room to collect myself, and that’s when her care team found me in the family waiting room.
“Be the daughter?” I thought to myself? “I am the daughter. What have I been doing here for five months if I haven’t been being the daughter? How can she say that to me!”
But she was right. So much of the time I spent by my mother’s side was spent in the role of medical advocate, and not in the role of daugther. This might seem like a strange distinction to make at first, especially given the fact that the role of medical advocate for aging parents so often falls to adult daughters, but it’s important all the same. What my mother’s doctor was telling me was that I needed to pay more attention to our mother-daughter need for affection, love, comfort, and the sharing of vulnerabilities. For at least the next few days nothing bad would happen if I let the task of collecting and organizing information about the tests, prescriptions, procedures fall to the side. Right now comfort and trust were more important than record-keeping. My mother needed a daughter, and not an advocate, right now.
We are often faced with exacly these kinds of competing demands on our time and attention. Sociologists call this role conflict. We occupy many positions in our lives, and the expectations that go with each are frequently inconsistent. In the memoir I’m writing about my mother’s last years, this “be the daughter” story is told in a chapter I’ve called “Buffy, The Medical Advocate“, in honor of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, whose myriad role conflicts were legendary: high school student, daughter, friend, saver of the world, vampire slayer, vampire’s girlfriend… the list goes on.
On a less fantastic level, as I read the assignments my students just submitted, detailing their time use over the course of a week, I’ve been struck – as I am every time I give this assignment – by how much role conflict they experience. Bosses expect them to be available for shifting schedules even though their professors expect them in class. Parents expect them to take care of younger siblings when something comes up at work. Their own children get sick and have to stay home from school on the morning we have an exam. When we talked about their findings in class last week one of my students said “I was surprised to learn how much of my time is spent doing things for other people. No wonder I have such a hard time getting my schoolwork done.”
In my case, the solution to the conflict was to temporarily put down one role so I could focus on the other. This was possible because I had the support of others who could help me negotiate role expectations (my own, mostly!) and shift gears. Sometimes that’s not possible. For many of my students, putting down work or family responsibilities to focus on school is not an option. For them, the solution needs to be creating a more realistic expectation about how many classes they can reasonably take without putting their academic standing in jeopardy. It means accepting the hard reality that if they want to do well they will have to move more slowly.
Solving the role conflicts that stress us out isn’t always easy, but seeing the roles for what they are, sets of expectations, is a helpful start. Negotiating role expectations can create a lot of freedom, but only if you know what you have to negotiate with. Some expectations can be changed or or set aside for a time. When we discover that they can’t, we see at least that the barrier we are facing is not a failing on our part, but a structural reality of our lives. We then need to look at the other roles we play to see if there is any adjustment possible. Figuring out when to delegate a role responsibility, when to ditch a role altogether, when to modify expectations associated with a role is tricky stuff, but it is essential to achieving happiness. There is little more frustrating than an unrealistic expectation. Our lives require triage-style decisions, and when we are doing that triage it’s important that we see all the pieces as clearly as we can.
What role conflicts do you face? Do you need to transition out of a role that no longer serves your needs? Do you need help transforming a role that you’d like to save but need to change? Is negotiating role expectations difficult for you? Drop me a note if I can give you a hand!