Women in the sandwich generation have long been unrecognized for their second full-time job: caregiving. To increase awareness for support of caregivers and help women feel less alone in their experience, Liz O’Donnell started Working Daughter, a community for women balancing eldercare, career and more. Founded in 2015, Working Daughter aims to foster this community of women by highlighting the common challenges they all face while recognizing the long-term benefits. O’Donnell is also the author of “Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman” and, more recently, “Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Making a Living.” Balancing eldercare, motherhood and a full-time job, O’Donnell shared with us her story through it all.
What inspired you to write “Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Making a Living”?
In fall 2013, I had just published my first book, “Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman,” about the impact housework and childcare have on women’s careers. While I was busy promoting that book, my parents started to need more care. They were in their 80s, and my husband and I were helping them with doctor appointments, grocery shopping, chores around the house and bill pay. There was one particular day that started before 6 a.m. – I woke up and sent some work emails, saw my kids off to school, wrote and filed an article for The Huffington Post, drove more than an hour to take my mother to the doctor, the pharmacy and lunch, helped my father fix something on his computer, drove back home (and ran over a large branch on the way) and then went to speak at an event about the challenges working mothers face. Driving home exhausted around 11 p.m., I thought to myself, “What about the working daughters? Who is taking care of us?” That’s the moment the book started writing itself.
What did you learn about yourself while writing “Working Daughter”?
I had to live the book before I wrote it. In summer 2014, both of my parents were diagnosed with terminal illnesses on the same day, and the rest of that year was so intense. I dealt with doctors, managed moves to memory care and hospice, hired an elder law attorney to sort through wills and bills – all while trying to stay employed and present in my children’s lives. Writing the book helped me reflect on the experience. Here’s what I learned:
- There is no avoiding eldercare – the only way through is through. It behooves everyone to start planning for eldercare because most of us will be called on to be caregivers at some point. Talk to your parents about their end-of-life goals; encourage them to assign healthcare proxies and power of attorney. Think about your own retirement and financial goals, and plan as best you can for how you make space in your life and your career to balance family and work.
- There is an upside to caregiving called the caregiver’s gain. I experienced this myself and also found research to support it. Professors from Johns Hopkins University and University of South Florida have done interesting work looking at the physical and emotional benefits caregivers often experience – like greater physical strength, greater cognitive functioning and enhanced self-esteem. Caregiving is difficult and stressful to experience, but it can be a positive experience at the same time.
- Your life never looks the way you thought it would. Planning is key for pointing you in the direction of your goals, but adaptability is critical for facing challenges along the way. I had to let go of how I thought my life was supposed to look and accept how it was in order to find happiness and fulfillment despite the challenges.
What are the greatest challenges of the working daughter experience?
Balancing eldercare and career is hard! Eldercare is unpredictable – there is no timeline to follow, and it is emotional. Working daughters, and sons, are facing illness, aging and end of life. Many are performing complex medical tasks when they go home at the end of the workday. Working daughters often switch to a less demanding job, take time off or quit work altogether to make time for caregiving duties. As a result, they lose an average $324,044 in compensation due to caregiving. We have a long way to go as a country in how we support working families, and we are only now starting to have meaningful conversations about how we support workers with parents, not just workers who are parents. But I am encouraged that we are starting to have those conversations. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day in this country, we have to.
You mentioned your first book, “Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman.” Does that book represent a different chapter of your life experience? What is your best advice for the “modern woman” on how to manage the daily balancing act?
While “Working Daughter” is part memoir, “Mogul, Mom, & Maid” isn’t about me. I was interested in the data that showed women do more housework and childcare on average than men, and I wanted to look at how that affected their careers. When we talk about helping women advance in their careers, we tend to focus on what’s happening in the office, but we need to look at what’s happening at home too. How do we support people at work and at home so that they can have personal lives and careers? And eldercare has to be part of that discussion.
My best advice – whether you are raising children, caring for an aging or ill relative, making space to volunteer for an organization or issue you care about or training for a marathon – is to know what matters most to you. Identify your own definition of success, be realistic about where you can thrive and where you might need to glide for a while, know what your long-term financial requirements are and then set your own course. Don’t worry about how other people define success or what they think you should be doing. Create your own plan and adapt as you go.
What issues do you believe need a spotlight? Is there a next book?
We need to keep a spotlight on eldercare. There are currently 44 million family caregivers in the United States. As I mentioned, there are 10,000 people turning 65 every day in the United States, and we are facing a shortage of caregivers. The AARP predicts that by 2030 we will need between 5.7 million and 6.6 million caregivers to support the sick and aging. Family members will be called on to fill that need. While the average caregiver is a woman in her late 40s, 40% of family caregivers are men, and 25% are millennials. We need to create policies, resources and support systems to help these caregivers stay in the workforce.
As far as another book, I will know what it is when it starts writing itself. But one of the things I am thinking about is that we can’t think about caregiving as an event. Someone has a baby, takes leave and returns. The event is over. Someone’s parent gets sick, they take time off and return. The event is over. It’s not that simple. There is a continuum of care that affects workers. My own experience has been working mother, working daughter, caregiver to my spouse and, now as a new widow, single parent to two teens. And mine isn’t an uncommon story. So how do we – employers and employees – align career and care across the continuum?