Gretchen Staebler moved back to Centralia in 2012 to take care of her 96-year-old mother, intending to stay for one year until she and her two sisters could move their mother into assisted living and get the family home ready to sell.
But life doesn’t always go according to plan.
As the back of her new book, “Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver,” says: “She came for a year — she stays for the end.”
In “Mother Lode,” Staebler unpacks the peaks and valleys that come along with caregiving, particularly for a parent in one’s childhood home. Since her mother Stellajoe Staebler — a founding member of the Friends of Seminary Hill group — died, she has become a caregiver ally, extending a metaphorical lifeline to those trudging similar paths.
“We all have different care recipients, we have different relationships. I’m only an expert in my story and I'm very aware of that,” said Staebler on what it means to be a caregiver ally. “Mostly just being a place to listen, and to hear it and not judge. A lot of people say that, ‘You’re a saint, I could never do that.’ ... It’s not helpful to say that to someone. I hope I know how to be encouraging without making them feel like they're something that they’re not feeling.”
Staebler doesn’t shy away from the fact that caregiving is emotionally, physically and mentally draining work that can leave a caregiver with very little energy to care for themselves.
“Let people be exhausted. Let people say they’re exhausted,” Staebler said of those who perpetuate single-minded optimism in caregiving. “Don’t make something rosy out of it.”
Now that she’s summited the peak of her own parental caregiving journey and made it safely down the other side, Staebler is hosting a series of free workshops with the Area Agency on Aging at the Centralia Timberland Library in March focused on helping caregivers learn self-care skills. The workshops will be held from 1:30 to 3 p.m. March 14, 21 and 28.
“Part of the reason I wanted to have multiple sessions is so that if people can’t come to all of the sessions they still have opportunities to find community,” Staebler said. “I am going to do some readings from the book. It’s a little bit of a book talk, but it’s more about finding ways to care for yourself while you care for another.”
Participants will receive a copy of Staebler’s Self-Care for Caregivers workbook (which is also available on her website),
some of which participants will work through in the workshops. The Area Agency on Aging will bring resources that participants can take home and will be available to answer any questions that Staebler’s experience doesn’t speak to.
Reading “Mother Lode” is not a prerequisite, though the library will have dedicated copies on hand to check out. Copies of Staebler’s book can be purchased at former Centralia city councilor and current Centralia Downtown Association Board President Rebecca Staebler’s shop HUBBUB in Centralia, at Book ‘N’ Brush in Chehalis, online from her website or wherever books are sold
Though Staebler is an advocate for caregivers of all varieties, her experience in caring for her elderly mother informed much of how she approaches the role of ally and is the reason she wrote “Mother Lode” in the first place. It began as a blog about her personal journey. The writing provided an escape and an outlet as she weaponized wit and wine against the tempest. The blog came full circle as she turned it into the book she was longing to find when she was in need of external guidance: something honest that acknowledged that caregiving isn’t all sunshine and roses, and where the caregiver isn’t a hero.
“I was desperate to find a book that would help me navigate these strange waters, unfamiliar waters, and every book, every memoir that I found about caregiving, the author was just so honored to have this opportunity. And I did not feel lucky to have this opportunity. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done. It challenged me to the core and brought out things in myself that I didn’t know were there,” Staebler said. “This book doesn’t put me in a good light. It doesn’t sugar coat it. … The way you’re supposed to write a memoir is you wait until it’s over and you have time to forget the difficult parts. But mine was written from my blog so it was written in real time. I couldn’t forget.”
Staebler cites a Brene Brown quote as the best explanation for why she shared her struggle: “One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.”
David Hartz, co-owner of Book ‘N’ Brush, knew right after he picked up his advance reader copy of “Mother Lode” that he wanted to stock it on his shelves.
“Seven pages into it I knew oh yeah, we wanted this book. Because she was so brutally honest, embarrassingly honest as far as what she was revealing in her emotions and her experiences in her life,” Hartz said. “It’s what drew me to the book. … Some of these things she brings out are really difficult.”
Her younger sister Rebecca Staebler echoed her older sister’s statements.
“I know that we’re a very fortunate family. People out there have it a whole lot worse. There are people out there that are family caregivers their whole life, in one way or another,” said Rebecca Staebler. “It’s amazing the strength that people have to do it. And even in that, nobody should think that they don’t have a reason to complain, you can still find it difficult. Maybe that’s a bit of the book, that it’s OK to get frustrated and to share that.”
“Mother Lode” details six years of being the primary caregiver for her mother, with whom Staebler's relationship was, at times, contentious.
“I’m not a caregiver in personality inventories. My mother was, Rebecca is, I am not. Caregiving did not come naturally to me,” Gretchen Staebler said. “My mother cared for her mother and found it challenging as well. Somehow providing care for her mother translated to how I should care for her, rather than how she should be, which was difficult. … If she was something in the past, she became more so as she declined. She was more particular as she aged and cognitively declined.”
A significant portion of the struggle came from the difficulty in challenging the roles of mother and daughter.
“She was not able to move out of that role, so I fell back into being the adolescent child,” Staebler said.
In her book, Staebler sheds more light on the tension in their relationship:
“I regress to my teenage self at the speed of light. I expose my buttons in a stubborn refusal to give up my own independence, and she can’t keep her fingers from pushing them. We stand in the middle of her kitchen fiefdom with all our ancient anger. I am 60 and she is 96, and nothing has changed since we were 14 and 50. … She needs me now, but she is still the mother. And mother’s care for their young, not the other way around.”
That tension was apparent to Hartz as an early reader and he found that honesty to be one of the biggest draws to the book.
“My feeling is that if she hadn’t stayed, there wouldn’t be a book, because it just reveals the struggles a caregiver goes through. And in this case the patient is your mother and rather a stubborn one. It brought up the conflicts between a patient, a caregiver and a parent. It’s a two-front war that’s going on: she’s a daughter and a caregiver. It’s very revealing and embarrassingly so. … But she stayed and she stayed until the end. And it comes full circle,” Hartz said. “That’s the beauty of the book: it comes full circle. She closes the emotional loop with her mother and her sister and herself. It’s like the family was complete. … But I think as children, we’re always trying to find the approval of her parents. My mother’s been dead over 30 years and I still struggle with some of those relational issues. A lot of people can learn from that: if you have parents, this book is appropriate. If you're a caregiver, this book is appropriate. If you’re a parent seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, this book can help you navigate that.”
Gretchen’s younger sister Rebecca features heavily in “Mother Lode” as a key supporting character and she couldn’t be more proud of her older sister.
“I think it’s a very well written memoir and story. I’ve also read a lot of memoirs that are not super well written and engaging. She’s an excellent writer and that part I’m absolutely really proud of,” Rebecca said. “I'm also really proud of how she’s taken it on, the writing of it and the publishing of it, the consistency. … She found her place with this. I’m really kind of in awe of her getting outside of her comfort zone and putting this out there. She’s really taken it on and I think grown a lot. So I’m very proud of her.”
Moving back to a hometown she’d left decades previously for a life in North Carolina, Centralia came with baggage. In the opening chapters of “Mother Lode,” Gretchen Staebler records the tumultuous feelings as she both greeted longed for landscapes and the dread of someone who has left without intentions of returning.
“I had wanted to come back to Washington nearly since I left, but I didn’t expect to come alone, and I surely never intended to live in this town again. … Small town girl triumphantly escapes with husband to new life; quietly returns alone, tail between legs. All I need is the dead of night.”
Now that she’s been here for a decade and born witness to it, Staebler reflects that Centralia has grown, as she did in the time she was away.
“You don’t return to a place as the same person who left. You’ve got lots of different perspectives and experiences that all play into how you see a place: I didn’t realize how charming downtown was,” Staebler said. “People kept living here while I was away and making it a place I’m proud to be a part of now. … I was 18 when I left for college. Seeing it as a grown up is different. It’s helped to see it through Rebecca’s eyes as well, as someone who’s involved in downtown, and seeing the aesthetic changes that so many people are dedicated to is lovely. And people who have stayed here and been passionate about making it a good place to live as my parents did in their time.”
In Mother Lode, Staebler recalls realizing the power her mother wielded as Stellajoe was interviewed by The Chronicle and made a heartfelt statement on the right of people to choose who they love.
“She is not just my mother, I realize; she is Stellajoe Staebler, community activist, and she is mighty.”
Being “daughter of Stellajoe” and “Rebecca’s sister,” Staebler admits that she puts pressure on herself to do something big for the community.
“I think I’m making my mark. I think I’ve found my place with this book, and I hope these workshops go well and I’m asked again,” she said. “So it’s given me a niche of my own choosing and not one that I’ve been given and have to keep up. … For me, I needed to find something that was not what they were doing.”
Though the experiences shared in “Mother Lode” were difficult, the Staebler sisters are stronger than ever and Rebecca is nothing but supportive of Gretchen sharing her perspective on this difficult subject.
“I know some things were painful for her and that came across in the book. But it also wasn’t painful for me because I read it as her story. I think for the most part she was very kind about some things that we may have disagreed about,” Rebecca Staebler said. “I feel kind of badly that her stint as caregiver was in a time when my mother was much more challenging. She was much less able to take care of herself and more critical of everything than she had before. During my time as her ‘caregiver’ she was going down to the senior center to help the ‘old people.’ We had more companionship than she was able to give in Gretchen’s time with her.”
As Gretchen Staebler points out in “Mother Lode”: “No matter how many people are around, the end of life is traveled alone.”
When Stellajoe Staebler died on Earth Day (a poignant end for the conservationist) in April 2018, just 52 days shy of 102 years old, her three daughters chose a characteristic of hers that they each embody for the eulogy. For Jo Ann, the eldest: a passion for the pursuit of knowledge, it was seeing promise and possibility in everything. For Rebecca, the youngest, it was advocacy, compassion for others and a helping heart. And for Gretchen, right in the middle of everything, it was facing the hard stuff with courage, not just looking at the mountains but being in the mountains.
Yes, You Can! Self-Care for Family Caregivers
Author Gretchen Staebler is hosting a series of workshops with the Area Agency on Aging. Each will be held from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at the Centralia Timberland Library.
• March 14: Yes, You Can!
• March 21: Finding Your Village
• March 28: Filling Your Toolbox
Each event is standalone. Participants can attend one or all.
For more information on Gretchen Staebler or to purchase “Mother Lode,” visit https://gretchenstaebler.com/. To keep up with her hiking adventures in the Pacific Northwest, check out her new blog at https://writingdownthestory.com/. Mother Lode is available in Lewis County at HUBBUB in Centralia, Book ‘N’ Brush in Chehalis or online wherever books are sold.