Mind the Gap (Year): Taking Time To Tend to a Dying Parent
In my early 20s I took a gap year. Against my immigrant parents’ advice and with a dollar-to-Euro exchange rate that would make you cringe (1.65!), I enrolled in a clown and mime conservatory in Paris. I travelled throughout the continent, performed in town squares, and became friends with artists, intellectuals and adventurers from across the globe. I started a small non-profit to teach theatre in Morocco. Although I returned to the States without the skills to land myself a legitimate job, the cultural cache associated with my zany travels catapulted me into a funded fellowship to complete a PhD in Performance Studies. The gap year had paid off, giving me capital in a new prestige economy where “life experience” in and of itself can lead to “making it” as an adult. And I lived happily ever after in the Bay Area sunshine and fog.
Until Gap Year #2 that is. That gap year snuck up on me, and it was not about having fun new experiences; it was the opposite, a gap year I had to take because my parents stopped being able to take care of themselves. The second gap year occurred seven years after the first, while I was still enrolled in my PhD program at 29 and my older brother was only 31.
My brother and I should have seen the writing on the wall. During my first gap year, my mother was already hobbling across Paris with a cane, in a constant state of pain. Over the intervening years, her body had slowly begun to shut down on her. She was diagnosed with cancer of the kidney, severe problems breathing, diabetes, and terrible circulation. That winter, my mother was told that she would have to one of her toes removed, and that was the beginning of the end for her. Weeks later, my father had his second large-scale stroke, leaving him semi-paralyzed on his right side, with limited verbal skills. Since the incident, he needed a 24-hour attendant.
If you had asked me in the summer of 2011 where I thought I’d be in a year, I would have said living a queer artist’s life in San Francisco, “writing” my dissertation. Instead, I spent the summer of 2012 moving my parents out of their retirement property in South Florida—think Boca but not nearly as bougie—and bringing them back to New York, where my brother and I had grown up.
Although Florida was my parents’ version of the good life in old age, their dream was my logistical nightmare. Quel surprise: Florida, the state with the most elderly people in the country, does not have a form of Medicaid for paying at home health attendants, and most private home care agencies in Florida charge between $175-300 a day.
In order to help orchestrate the financial, logistical and emotional caretaking of my parents, I did not return to Berkeley to teach and write. Instead I worked on fixing up and selling my parent’s house in Florida, applying for NY Community Medicaid for my father, and setting up medical and personal care for both of them. Even with the help of aides, social workers, and lawyers, my brother and I were still inundated with thousands of hours of logistical tasks, our relationship changing form “brothers” to “co-producers” of our parent’s lives. My department, in the midst of its own financial turmoil, could not help me out, and it was too late to apply for dissertation completion grants. My second gap year felt less like a gap and more like a chasm. I had to write my thesis without a community or much financial or social support.
While my colleagues were off going to conferences, hobnobbing with the leaders of our field, publishing, making art and connections, I had a second full-time job being on call for my parents, often editing chapters and articles and applying for academic jobs in hospital, Medicaid, and Social Security waiting rooms. As my CV stagnated, I approached interviews with trepidation, and I had to make the decision to limit my search to schools that were no more than 3-4 hours away from New York.
Despite the limitations my second gap year put on my academic career, I do not regret the choices I made. When my mother passed away from a cardiac episode in March 2013, I felt many intense emotions but never once regretted taking time away from my own life to aide and be with her. I cherish each of the times I got to watch Jeopardy! with her, even if her Jewish mothering and her mishigas about her ailing state drove me a little crazy. I don’t regret the 20 hours a week I currently spend taking care of my father’s finances, affairs, caretaking, and emotional well-being, even if it has left a glaring hole in my resume at the precise moment of a severe economic downturn. Instead of getting frustrated when I can’t understand what my father is saying to me, I try to cherish the happy moments, like the look on his face when I show up offering a fancy single origin olive oil from Fairway, reminding us both of his many years as a Middle eastern chef. I don’t regret the decision to stay in New York to be near him, even if it means I may have lost the option to get on the tenure track, since underemployed PhDs in NYC are a dime a dozen and most of them are adjuncts getting paid terrible wages—less than $3,000 a semester—just to retain affiliation while waiting for a job with security.
While traditional gap years like my first one are considered to have value in our current prestige economy, the gap year one takes out of filial piety does not have the same cultural caché. That needs to change, especially as caretaking impacts more and more young people. Americans out of the labor force for a year or more, for whatever the reason, earn 48 percent lower than their average pre-job earnings, even two years after their job loss and reemployment. The long-term detrimental impact of my gap year is still to be seen, but I certainly feel its effects every time I have a job interview and am asked, “So what explains this gap in your resume?” My hands get clammy, my breathing accelerates, and I am at a loss for what to say. Do I tell the truth and explain my personal situation or do I try to gloss over it, afraid they will see my family situation as a liability?
Because I don’t see it as a liability, and I don’t want to feel ashamed about something I’m most proud of—caring for my parents.
Besides, my gap year also functions as an asset. At 32 I’m looking for a job outside of the academy, with a PhD but hardly any practical workplace experience, and ironically, because of my experiences taking care of my parents, I have developed more skills related to financial planning, organizing, fundraising and management, as well as skills about how to work within institutional bureaucracy, than I ever did in a job. My recent gap year may have not been as fun, enviable, or as brimming with cultural “use value” as the one I took in my early twenties, but it had its own set of unexpected benefits. In the first gap year, I grew up by running away and shirking responsibilities. In my second, I stayed put, made a lot of unpleasant grown-up decisions, and learned what it means to be an adult.
Marc Boucai is a writer, scholar, director and performance artist, who recently completed his PhD in Performance Studies from UC Berkeley, and is currently based in Brooklyn NY.