February 24, 2023

Standing in the kitchen this morning talking with my friend Denise who lost her mother about 6 months before I lost my dad, I wondered aloud if I would ever stop caregiving? Which led to a conversation about the nature of caregiving. I find that even with my mother living in NY where my brother and sister can provide whatever care is not provided by her assisted living community, I fall into caregiver mode with others. Whether it be the cats that wander the streets or the neighbor that got into a bar fight or my writing clients or fellow support group members… I cannot seem to stop!!

A friend’s grandchild had a seizure in school and has had to go through surgeries and I want to jump in and make sure he recovers well. There is mold in the house with a baby and I want to jump in and save the baby. It’s not my role. Not my family. But my caregiving instinct is kicking in and I’m working hard to suppress it. Who am I to judge or presume to have the answers? As the Polish proverb loosely translated said, “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys”. I am not the ringmaster of other people’s lives though my caregiver training obviously is pushing me in that direction.

My hypothesis is that some of us are born to caregive, to nurture even, and some of us are trained to caregive. Some people come to caregiving from a religious perspective, a duty to fulfill for God. Some of us feel duty to family. Some caregivers, those who do it professionally, find something they’re instinctively good at and are able to earn a living offering the services to those who are not blessed with a natural caregiver around them. Some people are trained on what and how to do the tasks for caregiving but are able to keep the emotion out of it because it’s just a responsibility. Or some combination of all of the above and surely more options beyond what is in my own mind. The 54,000,000 caregivers currently in the USA certainly found themselves in the position from a variety of paths.

As my mother (a reluctant parent) tells me, at two years old my mother saw me taking care of my new baby brother and mom said, “Oh good, Fern can take care of the boy,” And ever since then, I’ve been taking care of my family. Mind you – not always with them wanting me to do this!

And then cared for my husband (now ex), clients, friends, all the way until today when caregiving has become second nature to me and even without direct caregiving responsibilities, I cannot seem to let go. On one hand, I get a lot of emotional satisfaction from it and feel worthy of being; on the other hand, there is the tiniest bit of resentment when the responsibilities overwhelm me. But I brought them on myself. So why? Why do I go this far? Why do I worry so much about solving everyone else’s problems? Why do I think I have the best solutions? That’s egotistical, isn’t it?

Denise said I need to go back to therapy! LOL. She’s not wrong. But it made me wonder if all caregivers feel like this? If we can’t help ourselves? If it’s some kind of Pavlovian training where doing good and helping others gave us rewards (on whatever level – attention, praise, gifts, affirmation of importance/relevance, etc.) and, like Pavlov’s dogs, we find life lacking without it.

I am working on taking care of myself without feeling guilty. I’ve joined a training gym to work on my health and bought new clothing that makes me feel stylish (no more sweats and tees for me) thus allocating my time and money to myself which is not easy for me. I committed to twice daily meditation and thus am not available for phone and in-person meetings during that time. I took time to visit friends and pursue my own interests instead of helping a friend with a writing project. Each time I do these things for myself, I feel a little twinge that I should be doing something for mom, or my friends or my clients.

I am staying with another caregiver and it’s kinda funny how we are both taking care of each other. I’m loving it. We are equally committed to recovery from caregiving and push each other to focus on ourselves. I’ve never had this before. Everyone in my life has seemed to want something from me. And now, when I apologize for not being as available, I hear these same people telling me that they can wait, they don’t mind, I should take care of myself, it’s time for me to focus on myself, and so on. What??? It’s okay to be selfish? What a concept!

So, what is it in me that makes me think others wouldn’t want me to take care of myself? It’s now clear to me that isn’t how they really feel. It’s my perception. And where did that come from? Yes… we’re back to that note about therapy again! But, in the meantime, I’m working on getting comfortable with moving forward on improving my own life. Hard as it is (and believe me, it is very difficult), I am letting people take care of me and resisting the urges to immediately repay their kindness or assistance. It’s not a tit-for-tat situation. I need to let others enjoy the feeling of giving as much as I do.

Because I also have found myself resenting giving too much, I always wonder if others are resentful of what they give me? Upon asking, reaffirming that they have the time and resources to offer me what’s being offered, I am hearing nothing but positive responses.

I’m curious about my fellow caregivers and what you feel about being cared for. I am excited to share my recovery plan because I feel like it’s working. I’m getting more and more comfortable with not being the only one who can fix the issues and handle the tasks and I am not responsible for everything! What a concept! I am feeling confident in my ability to earn income doing something I love. I’m writing again. I’m teaching again. I’m traveling again. I feel joy. I feel grateful. I feel alive. I wish this for all of you, my fellow caregivers.

I hope the answer to the question I began with is that we learn to separate our own needs from others and find balance. That we can move forward in a direction that benefits ourselves and if that includes occasionally caregiving for others, then enjoy that not only for what you can give but for what it brings to you. We can choose to caregive again after the loss of someone without the feeling that we have no choice and without giving up our own individuality and self-care.

I’ve heard many people tell me that they took care of a parent until he/she passed, and now they’re taking care of their in-laws and spouse. Stories of people caring for child with a disability, losing that child, and going on to care for a parent. People losing a parent or spouse and then finding themselves caring for a neighbor or family friend whose own family abandoned them. Caring for both parents and then, when finally free, wind up caring for an ailing sibling. This is more common than we know about because people do this amazing work in silence.

We need to raise our voices, ask for help, and find resources to make sure we don’t wind up being someone in need of care like 65% of caregivers, before we can enjoy our lives. My new mission is to create more resources to support caregivers, change the culture so caregivers feel empowered sharing a request for help (whether at home, in the workplace or in their community), and create government policies that make caregiving a recognized, appreciated, and compensated service. There are enough of us in this role to make this a reality.

#NotMyMonkey, #caregiverresources, #culturechange, #illBeRightThere