Parsing it Out: Sacrifice or Duty?

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Diana Trautwein -Parsing it Out3

What is it that makes a sacrifice truly sacrificial? Seems to me it has to be the modifier chosen for this month’s theme at SheLoves—willingness. I’m not sure that one idea can ever be successfully separated from the other, to tell you the truth. Choosing to give something up for the sake of someone else is what makes a sacrifice real. If the giving-up is not chosen, but forced—by pressure, either external or internal—then it becomes a demand, a duty or an expectation. And that is not the same thing at all, is it?

Learning how to parse out the difference between a choice and a demand is one of the hardest parts of our journey toward becoming mature, loving, insightful and empathetic human persons. I have spent a good portion of my later adult life trying to peel away the multiple, nuanced layers of my own story, looking hard at the motivations behind a lot of my choices over the years. This business of learning to own your own crap is hard work!

The most central piece of the story for me is my long and complicated relationship with my mother. I’ve written about the last decade of our journey together in multiple places on the internet, including here. The hard, sad loss of this once vibrant woman is filled with pain and sadness, yet even this last stage through dementia has shed some light on who she is, on how her childhood both nourished and scarred her and how those scars had an impact on me. The act of writing things down has involved some hard, deep work and none of it has been easy. My mom was the very best mom she could be, loving me and my brothers well, providing care, concern, fun, beauty, color and laughter for us all. I am deeply grateful for her and to her and love her very much indeed.

But she was far from perfect. No big surprise there, right? There has only been One person to walk this earth in perfection—the rest of us muddle along, wounding and being wounded, falling and getting up again. Just today, in the midst of her confusion, I heard these kinds of phrases: “I’m trying to be a good girl.” “I hope it’s not my fault.” “I think I did it right.”

Breaks. My. Heart. These are the wounds of early childhood, worming their way to the surface of a 95-year-old, deteriorating brain, even when nothing else she says makes any sense whatsoever. How can this be?

From about the age of seven, my mother took on the responsibility of protecting her mother from her father, who was given to binge drinking and gambling. Mom cleaned up his messes, stood up to him in her 7-year-old righteous indignation, and worried over her younger brother and sister. She had an older brother, too, but he was the crown prince of the family and apparently could do no wrong. It fell to mom to be the family guardian and watchdog.

And she passed that message, that burden, that responsibility . . . but not that sacrifice . . . to me when I was about seven. “Daughters take care of mothers,” were her words and they came right into me, body and soul. I’m here to tell you that age seven is way too young for anything to be ‘chosen.’ Instead, the act of care giving becomes part of your very DNA. Seven-year-olds are not, and cannot be, willing participants. Assumptions are made, expectations are parceled out and burdens are borne.

But for too many years, none of that was what I would call a willing sacrifice.

Today, many years of life and therapy later, I choose to take care of my mother. Not in my home, but near it. Not with all of my life, but with part of it. One of the lovelier parts of this evolution has been to watch my mother realize the unfairness of the expectations placed upon her, and to catch glimpses of the way she did the same thing to me. It’s a complicated process because we have all loved each other very much; great gifts have been passed down through the generations along with all those misguided expectations.

So today, as I left her sitting in a row of wheelchairs parked in front of a television set, knowing that she is winding her way down to the end of this long life, I told her she is beautiful. I thanked her for being such a good mama, and I promised I’d be back again tomorrow.

I choose to go back tomorrow. I want to be there. Yes, that means making a special trip, giving up a little time, probably brushing her hair and getting her a bit of juice to drink. It involves checking in with the nurses and the new hospice team that is supervising her care. But you know what? It is a sacrifice I offer with great joy and greater gratitude.

Yes, I am willing. And somehow, that truth makes all the difference.

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Diana Trautwein
Married to her college sweetheart for over 40 years, Diana is always wondering about things. She answers to Mom from their three adult kids and spouses and to Nana from their 8 grandkids, ranging in age from 3 to 22. For 17 years, after a mid-life call to ministry, she answered to Pastor Diana in two churches where she served as Associate Pastor. Since retiring at the end of 2010, she spends her time working as a spiritual director and writes on her blog, Just Wondering. For as long as she can remember, Jesus has been central to her story and the church an extension of her family. Not that either church or family is exactly perfect . . . but then, that’s what makes life interesting, right?
Diana Trautwein

Latest posts by Diana Trautwein (see all)

Diana Trautwein
  • Today, I will drive the few miles down the road to visit my mum (and her television). Yesterday, I talked on the phone to her 90-something year old big brother who, once again, shared a detail about their growing-up life that I didn’t know — and that made me sad for them both. And so, of course, now I understand one more layer of the history that is **ours**

    You continue to minister to me, Diana, in this season of being there for a mother who is less and less “there” herself, and this time it’s the important fact that this is a sentient choice. Your words make me glad that we were able to make the move: “Not in my home, but near it. Not with all of my life, but with part of it.” And that I have this time to make this willing sacrifice for her.

    • pastordt

      I wish I could hear a few more stories of childhood from someone, Michele — but mom is the last one left. No more stories to tell. Many blessings, friend, as you walk down this hard and beautiful road. It’s not one I would ever choose, but I am finding some gifts along the way.

      • And you are sharing the gifts so beautifully.

        • pastordt

          You are kind, Michele. Thank you.

  • sandyhay

    “Learning how to parse out the difference between a choice and a demand is one of the hardest parts of our journey…” and that still continues into my 70’s. Burden, responsibility, sacrifice…I feel like I have make these choices almost every day. I’d like to say the decisions get easier. Some….

    • pastordt

      It’s never easy, is it? I can fall back into the same trap of obligation . . . and then resentment! . . . so quickly. I continue to try and suss it out and temper my inward and outward responses. Because if I’m being pissy about it or feeling like a martyr, then it’s not really all that helpful anymore, is it?? Tough stuff!

  • Thank you for sharing!

    • pastordt

      You’re welcome!

  • Robin Baldwin

    This post is so timely for me. My 76-year-old mom has Alzheimer’s. She recently had emergency surgery and is now in a skilled nursing facility. She does not know what happened to her. She was scheduled to be released yesterday but I thought it was too soon. Luckily we found a loophole so she will stay there a few extra days. This road has been so difficult. My dad’s cognitive decline is becoming more severe. I am constantly feeling pulled in different directions as I have my own family to care for.

    • pastordt

      Oh my goodness — that is YOUNG for this horror to happen. All four of our parents had dementia of one type or another, but all were in their mid to late 80s when it began to be obvious. I am so very sorry, Robin. Praying for you this morning, that you will be wise and judicious in the expenditure of your own time and energy and that there will be answers for the permanent future care for both of your parents. So hard! And I am so very sorry.

      • Robin Baldwin

        Diana, thank you for your prayers and understanding of this challenging situation.

  • Margie Bicknell

    This post is something we talked about, oh so many years ago, Diana. And I have been traveling this road for many years. Now, as my mama too is declining into dementia, I have struggled to keep my mom solvent and waited for all of my siblings to agree on her care. It’s a waiting process and watching her decline continues to break my heart. One day there will be closure. It will be a blessing, but it will be too soon. There will be no one left who knew me as a child, I will be the one holding onto memories of our time together when I was young……sadly, that time is almost upon me, as she remembers less and less.

    • pastordt

      It’s a tough road, Margie. All the pieces of this story are tough. Many, many blessings as you wait and watch and pray and weep. My mom’s memories are almost entirely gone now — every once in a while, I’ll hear an echo. But it is almost entirely nonsequiters now and conversation is excruciatingly difficult.

  • Helene Burns

    Thanks for sharing your story and your heart Diana…you are truly inspiring and your beautiful heart shines through every word. xo

  • Diana this is beautiful. Learning stories of our parents does make our life and their life make more sense. My dad died in 2015 and going through his things I have found out stuff about his past and life that has made me sad (and also happy) and it has helped some things make more sense. Life can be so complicated.

    • pastordt

      You are such an encourager, Helene! Thank you so much.

  • pastordt

    It sure can, Theresa! I’m glad these words struck a chord with you, and I’m glad for the increased understanding that going through his things has given you.

  • “Today, many years of life and therapy later, I choose to take care of my mother. Not in my home, but near it. Not with all of my life, but with part of it.” I tend to be a very all-or-nothing person, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to feel like I’m choosing to serve someone, but that it’s not good enough if I’m not ALL in. Your words drip with wisdom and grace and I so enjoy, and benefit, from reading them.

  • pastordt

    Thank you, Beth.

  • Thank you for this reminder that, as we choose to forgive, to love, to show up, we can also choose our proximity and how self-care fits into these acts. Both so important.

  • pastordt

    You’re welcome, Annie. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • connie horner

    thank u 4 ur words filled with love…GOD LOVES ME—all of me. Not only my good side but also my bad side. He sent Christ to save the world because He loved it—all of it, and I will be saved, all of me because God loves the whole world and God loves all of me. What a wonderful gift…
    post by Connie USA

    • pastordt

      You’re welcome, Connie.

  • Just fabulous, Diana. So many great sentences, I’m not going to list them all here, but some will be making their way to my quotes file. And you are so right about willingness and choosing.

    I had a reputation as a fairly compassionate person, but the true test, I think, came when nurturing someone who, in my opinion, did not do a particularly good job nurturing me (or maybe she did). She did the best she could, though. I always believed that. My sister and I used to joke, when Ma was being particularly difficult, “Ah, we’ll miss her when she’s gone.” We do. We definitely do.

    It is indeed a hard job, learning to own your crap.

    • pastordt

      Yup, just about the hardest work we do!! Thanks for the encouragement, Marilyn.

  • DeanneMoore

    What powerful truths you shared from the life you are living. I had to think about my care giving of the past few years, particularly with my dad. It is thinking I’ve needed to do. Yep, owning your crap is hard. Thankful for you and for her this day. Our lives matter all the way to the end. What a humbling grace to see this in your mother’s life.

    • pastordt

      Thanks so much, Dea.