The Inner World of Caregiving

By Jennifer Ochstein

July 1, 2014

The Inner World of Caregiving

The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving by Lisa Ohlen Harris

We could agree that Lisa Ohlen Harris, wife, writer, and, at the time of this memoir, mother of three young girls, deserves sainthood for spending seven long years caring for her mother-in-law, Jeanne, an overweight, secret smoker slowly suffocating from the effects of emphysema.

Done. Leave it at that. Call it a day. No need to read on.


If caregiving was a compass and sainthood was at zero degrees north, The Fifth Season would orient us due south. Harris refuses any intimation that she be canonized. She interrogates herself at each turn, baring inner conflicts about her chosen burden (and caregiving is, indeed, a burden) few of us in her position would admit out loud. She tells us right up front she’s no saint: "Jeanne is not my mother. Sometimes I wonder why I am the one" chosen to care for her.

Later, Harris writes a posthumous letter to her mother-in-law, trying to resolve her feelings about caregiving: "Anger was a struggle for me these past few years. You saw me helping, serving, caring—everyone saw that and lauded me—but I hated how my life was tangled up with your needs, and I wanted out."

Harris feels guilty when she leaves for vacation because Jeanne became terse with her, once for not calling home often and later for inviting Jeanne’s brother to stay with her while family is away. She fails to volunteer as a classroom helper, make treats for classroom parties at her children’s schools, and take her preschooler to the park. She worries she’s not a good mother because she’s a good daughter-in-law. She prunes and waters a small section of landscaping in the back yard while neglecting the rest so Jeanne can enjoy the view out her bedroom window. She tucks away her work as a writer. All this to keep Jeanne as comfortable as possible while carting her to doctor’s appointments, picking up prescriptions, cooking, cleaning. Harris writes, "I've lost track of myself."

Harris owns her uncertainties and qualms; she’s honest about the grueling nature of caregiving. Caregiving is not a badge of honor. It’s dirty, ass-washing work. Humiliating in the Americanized context of independent living. It’s no surprise that bodies eventually break down. They ooze, heave, sputter, and stink. Yet it is within the intimate work of caregiving that Harris reveals a sort of communion with Jeanne.

Harris touched the most personal parts of her mother-in-law; hygiene required it.

I lift one of her breasts with my left hand to draw the soapy rag under it.

"Mom, is this okay?"

"Oh, yes,” she says. “That helps so much, dear."

It is comfortable for both of us, this intimacy. As I wash her most private areas, as I see each of her scars, I think: With this body she bore three sons.

Both women have given birth, and Harris's strong body is able to find common ground with her mother-in-law's weak one. One day, Harris admits later, her own body will likely break down no matter what healthy choices she makes early in her life, burdening her own daughters though she swears she would never want to.

But who would want that for herself or anyone else?

No one, of course. But Harris’s admission points at a troublesome truth: in failing to care for ourselves early in our lives, we force the care of our bodies onto others and relegate ourselves to pain and probing doctors and their tests, leaving us with little dignity. Harris doesn't malign those who become ill through no fault of their own, but, with devastating honesty, she forces readers to consider their choices. She writes, "You deprived yourself of the health you might have had in your seventies, and you deprived me of freedom I might have had in midlife. I'm glad I helped you through it, Jeanne, but I am also relieved that now it's over, and, yes, I'm even relieved that you're gone."

Harris's candor is gripping, her tone, matter-of-fact rather than bitter. By acknowledging her anger, as well as her self-doubt, frustration, uncertainty, guilt, and love, Harris articulates the humanity inherent in caring for the needs of another adult. And, perhaps, this is the key to all the emotions wrapped inside caregiving.

You can't read this memoir without noting that Jeanne's three sons were hands-off in the care of their mother. Jeanne's oldest son lived in France. Her middle son lived in Hawaii, whose wife died shortly after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Jeanne's care fell to her youngest son Todd, Harris's husband. She writes that as she cares for Todd's mother, he gets their daughters out of the house. She admits she wishes she could spend more time with their daughters. Even though I was angry that her husband didn't take on the care for his mother, the truth is, women, more often than men, are the caregivers. According to the Care Giver Action Network, sixty-six percent of family caregivers are women and nearly forty percent of those are also caring for children under eighteen. These are disturbing statistics, considering that the typical female caregiver is also married and works outside the home.

However, The Fifth Season is about promise keeping, a kind of marriage that, for Harris, is unbreakable. She promised Jeanne that she wouldn't have to spend her last days in a nursing home, while wondering whether she is "motivated by love or by duty—or is there even a difference between the two?" She admits to losing herself along the way, asking, "Who have I become?"

Ultimately, she finds herself in the promise she made to Jeanne. She writes, "But in the end I sat at her memorial service and thought, I did it. I didn’t screw up. I didn’t send her to a nursing home. I kept on until the end, and I was good to her. I didn't finish perfectly, but I finished well. And I loved my mother-in-law."

The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-law's Memoir About Caregiving by Lisa Ohlen Harris

$24.95 Cloth | Buy Now |

About the Reviewer:

Jen OchsteinJennifer Ochstein earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University in 2012. She’s published book reviews with Brevity and essays with Connotation Press, The Lindenwood Review, Evening Street Review, and Hippocampus Magazine. She’s currently at work on a memoir about her mother and teaches at Bethel College.

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