News and Events
Loving Mother: GSEP Professor Shelly Harrell
By Kathryn Boswell
They’re called the “baby boomers”—a spirited group of newcomers with new ideas and new ways of doing things. Today many boomers can be tagged with another label—the “sandwich generation.” Shelly Harrell can claim membership in both.
Dr. Harrell, a psychology professor at Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, joins other boomers who increasingly find themselves sandwiched between the dual responsibility of caring for young children as well as aging parents. For these families, the joy of seeing multiple generations come together to share meaningful times is matched only by the challenge of balancing time between children and parents who both need around-the-clock care. According to the National Family Caregivers Association, more than twenty-five percent of American families are involved in some way with elder/parent care.
Shelly is one of the more than fifty million people currently providing care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend. In April 2004, Shelly’s mother, Laura, left her native Detroit to move in with Shelly, her husband, Gary, and their two sons, Jared, 6, and Julian, 10. “This is not a duty or an obligation,” says Shelly. “I do it because I feel in my heart that it is the right thing to do.”
When Shelly was younger, her mother was the supporting force in her life—the one who encouraged Shelly to pursue her dreams, gently pushing her to stay focused on her academics and teaching her to be the thriving professional and loving mother she has become. Having received her master’s degree in foreign languages from the University of Michigan in the 1950s, Laura has been a role model for Shelly, demonstrating achievement and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Growing up in Detroit, Shelly’s father worked in a liquor warehouse and her mother was a teacher in a local public school. After Shelly attended a public school for two years, her mother decided to send her to a private school where she could obtain a better education. Every morning, Shelly would be bused from the streets of Detroit to the suburban mansions of Bloomfield Hills. “There was such a chasm between those two environments that I just learned to be bicultural,” she says. “Today I can comfortable just about anywhere, and I connect it to that experience.”
In 1977, when Shelly was a senior in high school, her father, Leon, passed away. Laura was, for the first time, without her beloved husband. For years, the two had played bridge together in local card clubs and regularly attended national tournaments, often wearing matching suits that Laura would sew especially for the occasion. Shelly knew her mother would always have her tight circle of friends and support, but she was worried about her mother’s well being.
One week after her father’s passing, Shelly received her early decision acceptance letter to Radcliffe College at Harvard University. It was a bittersweet moment. Initially, she informed her mother that she was not going to accept because Shelly didn’t want to leave Laura in what would be an empty home for the first time. “My mother said to me, ‘Shelly, why do I need you to sit up in this house with me? I haven’t worked this hard to get you where you are for nothing. You go.’ ” It is one of the many significant life moments that she recalls as Shelly tends to the current needs of her mother. Shelly has not forgotten the sacrifices her mother made on her behalf so many years ago.
Shelly obliged her mother and went to Harvard, nearly 2,500 miles away from her home. Enrolling as an undergraduate dance major, she cleaned dormitory bathrooms to earn extra money. Dancing had always been Shelly’s passion and she had studied with master teachers from Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. At Harvard, she and her fellow students started a dance company that reportedly remains active today.
However, before starting her sophomore year Shelly realized that, as much as she loved dance, she did not love it enough to make it her livelihood. So she sat down one day and opened her academic catalog of classes, perusing the list of options. “I wrote down every class title that sounded interesting,” she says. “Then I tallied up the number of classes in each department and psychology won. Almost all of the psychology classes sounded so fascinating.”
After graduating from Harvard magna cum laude with a degree in psychology and social relations, Shelly and her mother made a three-day drive from Detroit to Los Angeles in a little red Toyota that Shelly kept until two years ago. The move west was for Shelly to pursue her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. That special 1982 road trip is one of Shelly’s most precious memories.
In 2001, after Shelly had been teaching for two years as a professor of psychology at Pepperdine’s Graduate School and raising her two sons, her mother’s health began to show significant strain. In 2002, Laura underwent surgery to treat lung cancer. The surgery was followed by the gradual development of Parkinson’s disease and progressive polyneuropathy, a condition that prohibits the brain from successfully transmitting messages to the extremities. So the decision was made and Laura moved to California to live with the Harrell family in the spring of 2004.
The transition was difficult on everyone. For her mother, it was difficult to accept that her condition was not going to improve. For Shelly’s family, there were the simple logistics of two young boys sharing a bathroom with their grandmother, making sure everyone was fed and given personal attention, all the while leaving personal time for a family to continue to be a family.
“From 6 to 7 a.m., I get the kids ready for school. Then at 7:15 I start taking care of my mother, getting her meals and medication prepared for the day, and managing any immediate health needs,” Shelly explains. It is just the beginning of frenetic days full of teaching and meeting with students, working on her own research, attending the children’s athletic events, cooking, cleaning, and completing all of the tasks attributed to a nurse and mother.
Not having much control over her time does not seem to faze Shelly. She openly admits that she is no Superwoman, be put aside to accommodate others’ needs. But she finds a great peace in what she is doing. “No matter how stressed I am, or how badly I want to pull my hair out, I know I am doing the right thing,” she says.
“People always ask me, ‘Have you thought about placing your mom in a home?’ And my answer is that no one in those places could show my mother the same love and patience that I can. She should not have to feel, even for a minute, that she is a burden to anyone.”
As a psychologist, Shelly admits that much of her professional and personal focus is on the needs of others— helping them deal with their challenges and difficulties. However, the time spent caring for her mother has required Shelly to turn her focus inward and take a good look at herself. “As I have gone through this experience with my mother, I have spent time questioning, ‘What is my purpose on this earth?’ And I have made peace with an understanding that one of my gifts is an ability to comfort and motivate people. . . and that is a big part of what I am here to do. I had to come to terms with both my strengths and my limitations.”
Shelly’s new role as caretaker has helped give her greater insight into how to reach her students. “I teach courses such as Research Methods, Statistics, Cross-cultural
Counseling, and Group Therapy that often intimidate students. . . This whole experience with my mother is helping me become even more patient and understanding of others’ fears and challenges.”
While it is sometimes difficult for the boys to share their mom’s attention with their grandmother, Shelly feels that this experience is also teaching them important values about the meaning of family. The boys also see how “amazing” their dad is, coaching many of their teams and involving himself at home. The Harrell family hopes to remodel their house in order to add a room for Laura, making it more handicap- accessible.
At the end of the day, Shelly and her family take great comfort in caring for the woman who continues to give them so much. “I have always wanted to fix everything but, through this, I have had to ground myself in the fact that life is both joy and pain. Those elements contribute to the journey we are on. I want to help my mother adjust to all of the changes without feeling bitter, but blessed and grateful.”
This story first appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Pepperdine People. To read the entire magazine, please click here.