Living With Kids: Janette Swain
Have you heard the term “Sandwich Generation” before? It describes the situation may young families find themselves in when you are still caring for your own kids at home, but also have to start caring for your aging parent. Today’s Living With Kids mom, Janette, did just that when her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and needed more help around the house.
Fitting her own family into her parents home and being limited in what design decisions she could make to make the home feel like her own really forced Janette to prioritize and make creative decisions.
Please give a warm welcome to Janette.
Welcome to our little corner of the world! I am Janette: sister to four brothers, wife to two men (though not at the same time), mother to eight dynamic children, and a daughter and caregiver to my sweet father. Who lives in our home.
It might be more pertinent to first tell you who does not live here. Jay, husband of my youth and father of my first five sons, does not live here; he passed away from brain cancer nearly a dozen years ago, but we still remember him with taco Sundays and daily fresh bread. My ever-patient mother does not live here, as she passed away five years ago. We still see her in the bold splashes of red in the house, and her thoughtfully arranged curio cabinets.
My four brothers also do not live here, but their presence is felt as we try to work together to take care of my dad. Smiling faces of their families line the walls of our front room and remind us of the strength of our extended family. My first son does not live here; he was married last summer. He and my dad share a connection in the model train hobby that nearly fills Dad’s entire garage.
So now the folks who do live here: my dad, my husband, Trent, seven children, oh, and me. My dad is only 73 but has Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Everything is very slow for him now, in both movement and thought. Dad still makes time to play with his trains twice a week, and faithfully watches his favorite World War II movies.
I married Trent after a few difficult years as a single parent. We grew up on the same side of town so we’ve known each other for about forever, and I totally had a crush on him in high school! He was the one to introduce me to my first husband, and it has been so sweet to keep Jay’s memory as part of our family. Trent has the biggest heart you could ever imagine, and we all benefit from his can-do attitude and boundless energy.
My next two boys are college students home for the summer. Nathan is working towards becoming a surgeon, and Andrew is studying digital cinema. They roomed together last year, and my mother-heart loves seeing them laugh, grow, and encounter challenges without feeling like I have to step in and solve their problems.
Matthew is 16. He has the energy of a lightning bolt, and harnesses it by playing the ukulele, throwing javelins, and running an insane sprint on the high school track team. Timothy, at 14, has his daddy’s keen engineering mind and gregarious grin, and his mama’s gentle spirit and artistic bent. Next is our eight-year-old angel girl. Angelee loves to write and play house, climb trees and play soccer. Neither she nor I have any sisters, but we’re trying to figure out how to do pink together.
Last up are Sam and Dan, our seven-year-old twins. Sam is a pro on the hover board and draws fun detailed pictures. Dan reads big chapter books and has magical grass-stain-on-the-knees powers. They still sleep in the same bed because they can only sleep if they are snuggled up to someone, which is fine with me because then we don’t need to fit in as many beds.
It’s a full house, to be sure, and I love it.
All this activity happens in my childhood home in American Fork, Utah. Our small city is nestled between Utah Lake and the base of the Rocky Mountains, and half a day away from 16 national parks or monuments. I am a sunshine and mountain girl, and love living in the shadow of all the mountains surrounding our valley.
Mount Timpanogos towers 7,000 feet over the valley floor and I never tire of watching it change from misty in the mornings, to hazy in the heat of mid-day, to gilded with pink and orange as the sun sets. The boys grew up camping (even as babies!), and now love to hike or spend a day on the jet skis. I do miss the open space we used to have here — our area is one of the fastest-growing in the nation.
We live in the wonderfullest (it’s great enough that I have to make up new words for it) neighborhood! Walking up our quiet, tree-lined street, we can go one way to the park and the other way to the elementary school. Although houses on our street rarely change owners, there are actually two for sale right now, and they will go fast! Built in the 1970s, $300,000 will get you 5 or 6 bedrooms spread over 3,000 square feet on a quarter acre lot.
Our neighbors are an interesting mix of young couples, middling families like us, and the older original homeowners like my dad. I’m so lucky that not only do the kids have good friends here, but my immediate neighbors have become the best of friends for Trent and me, too. We chat on the porch while watching our children play, bring dinner during illnesses, deliver flowers, cry, laugh, and sing karaoke together.
I remember looking back at this neighborhood when I was in college and thinking I’d never be able to find a better place — or be able to afford a house like my parents had. Fast forward to when Jay and I were living in the Seattle area with our 5 sons. The brain tumor he had been battling for 5 years became incapacitating enough that we needed more support. What a blessing that the house next door to my parents was for sale! My folks were a huge help to me and the kids while we dealt with Jay’s decline and eventual death.
When I remarried, Trent and I bought a bigger house across town to fit us, the boys, and the small fries we added to the family. Three years ago, when my dad’s situation changed, we felt it was our turn to help. We squished our bigger family into his smaller, already-furnished house, even building temporary walls to carve out extra bedrooms in his basement. We worried more about caring for him than in how we felt, but hoped to settle in and get comfortable. My dad’s first request when we moved in — don’t put any holes in the walls — made my heart sink, thinking I might not be able to make this house feel like home.
It was a challenge to fuse “respecting my deceased mother’s much-bolder style” and “active big family,” but in the past 3 years we’ve been able to create even more of a haven than I ever dreamed of in our big house. It was a challenge to make dad’s house our home while we felt like visitors in his house. The family pictures and tennis trophies had to stay — my dad didn’t really want us to change anything.
Over time, I discovered that Dad did not notice if I hung curtains. I stashed a half-million red throw pillows under the couch. I covered the hunter-green countertops with contact paper to make it look like the white marble in my dreams. I came to appreciate the craftsmanship of oak cabinetry. I decorated with cozy, living things: plants and books and warm blankets and dirty socks.
I learned to not be bothered by the things I couldn’t change – and that was a long, hard journey. In the end, I loved the house; I loved our home. It’s the love that did it, not the decorating — I started out backwards. Somehow, the blessings we got from caring and serving end up being more beautiful than the results of a dozen design classes.
One thing I did not expect when we started on this caregiving journey was how involved my husband would be. Trent has been so gentle and mindful of my dad. I love how Dad thinks they have something sneaky going on when Trent takes him late-night ice cream. I take care of the medicines and the doctor’s visits and the physical therapy and learning about Parkinson’s and all the THINGS. Trent reminds me to love. He is the perfect Mary to my Martha.
I’ve been helping my dad write his history. He sits at his once-tidy desk, telling me his stories and memories, speaking slowly enough that my typing can keep up. I like to hold his thin, wrinkled hand and see his eyes light up when I tell him I love him. I turn on some music from the Lettermen and he dances a little, turning around and saying triumphantly, “See? There’s nothing wrong with my balance!” I was always his little sweetie, his only daughter, and I’m glad to bring some bit of happy into his days.
At first, there wasn’t a lot required of us — just meals and yard work, which we would be doing anyway. Gradually, as my dad’s condition has declined, we’ve taken on more tasks to make his life easier: eye drops thrice a day, four daily doses of medicines, cutting up his food, encouraging him to drink enough water, steadying him as he tries to move about the house, helping him with physical therapy exercises, teaching him how to use the remote… again. My world has become smaller as his needs have increased.
It has been easy to lose myself in the middle of everyone else’s needs. There are frustrating times when everyone wants a piece of me and I don’t feel like I have any pieces left. My young children want me to play with them. My older children want to go out and have adventures. My dad wants me to just sit with him. And all I want to do is sleep.
Not taking care of myself took a toll on my health, and I found myself sick in bed for a few months with Epstein-Barr. That was hard, to be forced to put myself first. Since then, I’ve been more careful. I simplified our tiny bedroom and took all the colors out to make it feel more restful. When things get crazy, I can lay on my quiet bed and rest until I can breathe peacefully again and face the challenges of the day.
Recently, Trent asked me what my hobbies were — what my passion was. I stared at him, then started sobbing. All I could see that day were my “Usetabees.” I used to be a writer, filling out dozens of journals and regularly posting on my blog. I used to be a creative calligrapher. I used to be a teacher, an artist, an arranger of piano medleys. I used to be a crafter, a DIYer, a gardener. I used to be a college graduate, for Pete’s sake!
Later on that day, I came back and told him in defeat, “I remember my passion — I love to love and nurture. But today it’s miserable.” Some days are like that. I get out the soft tissue and cry, create something, take a nap, take courage to dream, pat myself on the back, and remember that I am enough. Life won’t quit giving me challenges, but I will find light and joy again, as long as I keep looking.
Other days aren’t so dark. My heart lifts when I look out the window to see the lilac bushes my mother planted in memory of her mother. My Dad gives great hugs, holding on to me for balance. I’m grateful to my grandfather for planting a dozen fruit trees in the backyard so my children can play in the shade, climb high in the leaves, and eat tangy homemade jam.
I tell my children stories of those who have gone before, like how my father’s father welded ships in Germany before coming to the United States, or how their third great-grandmother drove across the plains in a covered wagon. We have Grandma Susie’s collection of Disney movies, my Opa’s cane, Great-Grandma Ruby’s treadle sewing machine, the shelf that belonged to Great-Grandpa Garrett, and pillowcases hand-embroidered by Great-Grandma Amy for my mother’s trousseau.
I don’t know whether they notice the connections, but I draw strength from them. In my father’s home, caring for this sweet man, I am surrounded by generations of loved ones who inspire, watch over and mentor me in how to best live in love. If I were in my own home, I don’t know that I would have that feeling of connection, so for that I’m grateful. What a privilege it is to get to practice my passion!
t wasn’t hard to take on the role of caregiver for my dad. I spent a few years taking care of Jay while he struggled with brain cancer, and Heaven knows I spend a lot of time caring for my children! Dad’s condition has continued to deteriorate; he now needs more help than I can give. Helping him dress, get cleaned up, eat, and always being close by when he feels unsteady takes up more time than I can spare from my own family.
After much deliberation and discussion with my brothers, it was decided that Dad would move into an assisted living center. It has been hard to find peace with that decision when it feels like I have failed, or haven’t done enough. Thinking about him leaving the home he has sacrificed for and lived in for more than 40 years is nothing short of heart-wrenching. This also means that we will be moving out — finding a new house and beginning again the process of building it into a home. Honestly, I’m not looking forward to it. But we press forward and somehow it will work out.
It will, won’t it?
When my kids look back on this part of our lives, I hope they remember that we went to church together. Whether or not we agree with everything people say, the things we learn there and the faith we grow there will help us get through our hard times. We learn to be kind even when we don’t feel like it, look out for other people, make good choices, and fill our lives with good things. There is real strength for the taking there… if we choose to take it.
I hope my children remember that families pull together. We help each other. When we are more able, we help those who are less able (like me when I get old!). I have loved watching our little ones run to call Opa to dinner, and seeing our bigger boys give him a hand or two when his stander-upper isn’t working. I hope they can see that the very structure of a family is all about safety and nurturing and growth, and I hope they find the strength in it.
Sometimes I want my children to forget the times when I lost my temper or when I was just too tired to do the things I knew I should be doing. But really, I don’t. I’m ok if they remember that their mother made mistakes, fixed the problems, and moved on. I hope they remember that some days just felt like a train wreck, but we got through it. We are tough enough to persist and prevail — even cheerfully sometimes!
I hope they remember that home is more about the people in the house than the structure itself or the stuff in it. Mostly, I hope they remember that their mama loved them.
I have loved watching my children grow. As bittersweet as it is to leave a particularly charming phase of childhood, I know there is another wonderful chapter on the next page. I’ve told my children that my job is to love and teach them, and make myself obsolete. Their job is to grow taller than me, stronger than me, and smarter than me. So far, so good.
My favorite part of the day is piling into the giant chair with my three little ones and telling bedtime stories before going back upstairs to chat with my teenagers, but I have to confess that I miss the sweet smell of a new baby’s head. I miss being able to hold my kids close to my heart for longer than just a moment before they wriggle away — but moving away is part of the process. That doesn’t mean I have to like it!
If I was a good listener when I was a new mother (which I wasn’t), and if I knew a sage who gave the best advice (which I didn’t), I wish she would have told me that when I hold a crying baby over my shoulder, I should position the baby’s head far enough over my shoulder that the distraught babe was not hollering directly into my ear. I would have more hearing in my left ear now if I had known that tidbit.
I wish I would have known that I didn’t need to solve all of my children’s troubles. Maybe loving means sometimes we have to watch and wait while our loved ones struggle, standing ready to catch them if they fall, or cheer if they fly. But they have to do it on their own in order to grow. Our own hard things can make us stronger, but taking on other people’s hard things just makes you tired.
At the end of my life, I’m sure I’ll look back on this and say I wish I had known that things would work out for the best. That’s something I don’t know now, but I wish I did! I just have to have faith and keep moving forward, loving the best I know how. The things I question, the choices that bewilder me, the problems that seem to have no solution, the dark of night that never seems to end — it ALWAYS works out. Life hasn’t yet gone the way I thought it should, but the dawn has always broken and lit the sky in brilliant shades of hope and wonder. Unexpected solutions appear, peace fills my heart, and I can find my joy. Now if I can only remember that!
There are so many wonderful tidbits in here about growth and change and moving on and returning home. Life really seems to be cyclical like that, doesn’t it? And Janette is in the heart of it all. Missing having babies, but still cuddling with younger kids. Chatting with teenagers and missing the older kids who’ve grown up and left the nest. All the while living in your childhood home where she’s become the caregiver for someone who cuddled her when she was a little kid.
Are you starting to feel the pressure of caring for your kids and caring for your parents? How do you split your time between the two? What challenges do you see in helping take care of someone who was previously very independent?
Angelle’s Colorful Star Lights.
A loaf pan big enough to make bread for sandwiches for the week.
Olive Wood Serving Spoons my son bought in South Africa.
The peaceful picture above my bed that calms me when I want to run away.
Credits: Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org