Love, Devotion, and Stress: The Realities of Caring for an Aging Parent
Contributing Author: Susan Broderick, Program Director, NDAA
A recent survey of lawyers from California and Washington, D.C. confirmed that there are significantly high rates of stress and heavy alcohol use within the legal profession. In “Stress, Drink, Leave: An examination of gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys,” researchers found that the legal profession in the United States is in the midst of a “cultural reckoning” related to the mental health and well-being of its members. The survey also indicated that the prevalence and severity of depression, anxiety, stress, and risky/hazardous drinking were significantly higher among women.
For far too long, the “work hard, play hard” has been exalted, while those who struggled with alcohol or stress issues remained quiet and ashamed. As an attorney who has spent over 30 years working within the justice system, I was not surprised by these findings. As a woman in recovery for 20 years, I am grateful to see that we are finally acknowledging the elephant in the room and recognizing just how prevalent the problem is.
Another interesting finding from this study is that work-family conflict was the leading cause of women leaving the profession. At first glance, I automatically assumed that they were discussing the problems associated with childcare issues and work. As a never-married woman who has never had children, I have no experience with that conflict. Yet, I was in the middle of my own work-family conflict — taking care of my mother during the final year of her life.
Caring for children is of course a very common and important issue for many women (and men) in the legal profession, but so is the stress that comes from caring for an aging parent. In fact, with the population living longer, it seems like almost everyone I talk with about this issue has grappled with this problem in one way or another. In many ways, it is the true cycle of life, caring for those who first cared for us. It is beautiful yet it can be overwhelming and heartbreaking. Very often, it is the daughters who are taking on this role.
My mother’s journey over the past 18 months has been rollercoaster. In April of 2020, she was diagnosed with Covid and hospitalized for several weeks. Fortunately, she survived, but ended up with a severe infection in her abdomen. In December of 2020, she went in for what should have been a routine colonoscopy. Unfortunately, the doctor perforated my mother’s colon and she spent the past 8 months fighting for her life.
The journey was exhausting, but it was also filled with beautiful moments. In many ways, we were very lucky for all of this to happen when it did. Because of the pandemic, I have been working remotely, so I was able to come to NY to take care of her. I was there to be her advocate and navigate through all the conflicting medical opinions and directives. I was also fortunate because of the flexibility of the work I do. I am not tied to a court schedule and I can work at night and the weekends. I spent a lot of time sitting working from my mother’s room in the hospital, answering emails and attending Zoom meetings, while she would sleep soundly in her bed.
My sobriety provided a firm foundation throughout this process. Every morning I would start my day with some spiritual readings and meditations, for that helped center and ground me. I would check in with my recovery network, who often reminded me that as a sober woman I could be there for my mother in a way that I wouldn’t be able to if I were still drinking. Watching her decline was heartbreaking but walking into the hospital room and seeing her smile at me filled my heart with joy. I also knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to do.
My mother passed away on July 26, 2021, and she was surrounded by her family. During the last few weeks of her life, I took leave from work and was able to be with her 24/7. It was sacred time and I will be forever grateful that I was able to do that. As much as I love being an attorney, the most important role I have ever had in my life was that of being a daughter.
As the authors of the study concluded: “A career in law should not be antagonistic to the full expression of a lawyer’s humanity…Strategies and interventions aimed at alleviating the work-family conflict would be wise pursuits for legal employers hoping to reduce unwanted turnover and increase the likelihood that their attorneys will be able to thrive in all dimensions of their lives.”
Given that this is an issue that many grapple with, my hope is that the importance of caring for aging parents along with the stress that the role can bring on, is acknowledged by the profession as well. If we are serious about improving the well-being of lawyers, it is critical that we include this important yet often overlooked experience.
Susan Broderick is a Program Director with the National District Attorneys Association, where she is also the staff liaison for the Well-being Task Force.