When the Roles are Reversed: Caring for Our Parents

Caretaking duties generally refer to caring for children, but as our parents age, they also need support and care from their children. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, Haau3 seon6 (Cantonese) or xiao shun (Mandarin) is the term for filial piety. In Confucianism, this concept is the attitude of obedience, devotion, and care toward one’s parents and elder family members that is the basis of individual moral conduct and social harmony.

Filial piety consisted of putting the needs of parents and family elders over self, spouse, and children, deferring to parents’ judgment, and observing toward them the prescribed behavioral proprieties. This is especially true of women, who are expected to bear the brunt of the family care, from the young to the elderly.

Is this fair? Of course not, especially in this day and age. However, growing up in a Chinese family from Hong Kong, the expectation is that I will care for my parents when they become ill or elderly. That time came much sooner than expected for my father, who was diagnosed with cancer. In late 2019, when Dad insisted we come home for dinner, I knew something was wrong.

With the big C came consultations with many doctors, chemotherapy, and surgery. My parents were not fluent in English and Dad could no longer drive, so I was the scheduler, chauffeur, and navigator of the complex medical system.

Also, there were stories about a highly contagious airborne illness. Forced into working remotely, our team was able to adapt quickly. My boss told me to do whatever I needed to do. This was the blessing I needed to survive that year. I worked from anywhere – my parents’ home in San Francisco, Dad’s hospital room, the cafeteria, even my car when the hospital did not let me stay. Many hours of work were completed on my laptop and even on my cell phone. I relied heavily on tethering on my hotspot. The cloud was my friend. I spent a lot of time passing instructions to my staff. I would do anything if it meant being able to accompany him to appointments or to visit or even stay with him when he was admitted.

I was a lawyer, manager, wife, daughter, bar leader, and teammate. By the end of Dad’s journey, I had also evolved into a hospice nurse, COVID funeral planner, and Mom’s manager. Dad passed away peacefully on January 20, 2021. The most unfair part? He was only 67. Along with managing everything else, I could not manage myself. So, I buried my grief in my responsibilities and work. I became a manic billing machine. I even presented at an Inn of Court program on January 20th because I convinced myself that Dad would have wanted me to persevere. I burned the candle at both ends.

I reflect a lot about “what if” and how I should have spent more time with Dad. Despite the regrets, I will always be thankful for 2020. While it was a nightmare, there was a silver lining. Working remotely allowed me to be there for my family while juggling work and other responsibilities. I have heard that if there was ever a lesson that the pandemic has taught lawyers, it is that we should all embrace technology to make things easier. But, in my opinion, there is a different lesson to embrace: the power to say no when others such as children or ailing parents must take priority. Even superheroes must take a break sometimes. Be kind to yourself.