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Who Is This Daughter I've Become?

I've never been a mother, but in a role reversal, I'm now more like a mother to my 93-year-old mom

By Dana Shavin

I was sitting across from my mother at the breakfast table recently, listening to her extoll the virtues of my siblings and me. She was so glad she had children, she said, because they had been, and continue to be, such a comfort to her. She looked up from her miniscule saucer of cereal and said, completely without jest, "You know, it's not too late for you to have children."

A woman smiling with her arm around her mother. Next Avenue
Dana Shavin and her mom  |  Credit: Courtesy of Dana Shavin

Slack-jowled and estrogen-less, I squinted at her over my bucket of Wheat Squares. "Exactly how old do you think I am?" I said.

"Oh, I don't know," she said. "Are you thirty yet?"

"I'm sixty-one," I said.

She screamed and recoiled from the table.

Taking care of people, with the exception of being a therapist and a life coach, isn't something I ever wanted to do.

Just days earlier when I told my mother how old I was, she cradled my face and said, "You're just a baby!" I liked this response better, although I now know that what makes me a "baby" in her ninety-three-year-old eyes one day is what makes me a frightful relic the next.

The Curve Ball

My mother has been a tad bit confused lately, and so my brother and I have stepped in to help. It's not a role I'm familiar with. Taking care of people, with the exception of being a therapist and a life coach, isn't something I ever wanted to do. Infant body fluids have always unnerved me. I never liked the smell of young skin. Almost everything about small humans, with the exception of their impossibly charming clothes, repelled me. Hence the absence of children, and of caretaking, in my life up until now.

But sometimes the universe throws you a curve ball.

New Caregiving Experiences

It's been interesting to reflect on the caretaking I've been doing this past month. Several times last week I helped my mother into my car, diligently making sure all her limbs were inside before shutting the door. I might have slammed it on her arm one time, but in my defense, because I've had no carpooling experience, I did not know limbs do not automatically follow bodies into vehicles.

There were the multiple times I held my mother's hand as we inched back and forth across the parking lot to and from Marshall's, walking so slowly that cars shut off their engines to wait.

And there were the two consecutive days I spent inside Marshall's with my extra-small mother, helping her to review every single item of clothing up to and including the 2XXs, because she didn't want to overlook anything; for this, I had to call upon a well of patience so deep, I briefly lost consciousness.

Thankfully, because she still has a sharp wit, there were light moments.


"I'm tired," she said, twenty minutes into our second visit to Marshall's.

"I don't understand," I said. "We were here a lot longer yesterday and you never got tired."

"I was a day younger yesterday," she said. 

We both laughed, and then she took my hand and we set off on the fifteen-minute trek to the grocery store ten steps away.

I can remember times in my life when I was visited by a blinding rage driven by the sheer exasperation of a speed limit-abiding car in front of me, or by some tranquil human being ambling through a check-out lane ahead of me, or by how long it took for dial-up to connect (thirty seconds! Thirty #$%^& seconds!)

The Person I've Become

And yet this entire past month I have been the picture of unflappability, shocking myself with the level of tenderness, patience and care I've brought to the task of helping my mother, even as I am driving her all over the hell that is Atlanta with my obnoxious, hyperverbal GPS reciting triple-named streets in monotone.

Did I expect to find the well of compassion and patience for my mother that I somehow tapped into when the situation demanded it? I did not.

All this to say that we never know how we will react in certain situations until we are in them. Did I expect to find the well of compassion and patience for my mother that I somehow tapped into when the situation demanded it? I did not. I'm the daughter who has spent her life writing the kinds of skewering personal essays no mother wants to read, believing that bald truth-telling was my most important gift to the world.

Did I expect to hear my mother tell me how happy she was to have had me, how helpful I have been, how much she appreciates and loves me? I did not. To my family, these were platitudes, and we did not speak in them.

But again, the universe surprises. My mother has changed, but I have too. I hardly recognize this person I've become, the one who, along with my brother, is holding a tender net for my mother, biting my tongue when frustration sets in, and, most importantly, feeling such gratitude that my mother and I have lived long enough to come to this place.

Granted, we were both a day younger yesterday. But youth, I now know, isn't everything.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Contributor Dana Shavin
Dana Shavin’s essays and articles have appeared in Garden and Gun, Oxford American, The Sun, Fourth Genre,, Appalachian ReviewLongridge ReviewPsychology TodayParade,Bark, The Writer, AARP’s The Ethel, and Travel+Leisure.comShe is an award-winning humor columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and the author of a memoir, The Body Tourist (Little Feather Books, 2014)and Finding the World: Thoughts on Life, Love, Home and Dogs, a collection of her most popular columns spanning twenty years. You can find more at, and follow her on Facebook at Dana Shavin Writes. 

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