I Am More Than a Caregiver
Exploring my identity beyond the role I inherited.
I am a caregiver. Not by profession, but by design.
I was the firstborn in my family — my parents’ first child and my maternal grandparents’ first grandbaby. My mother was one of those women who believed that a woman’s greatest achievement was wife- and motherhood — to take care of her partner and babies. I picked that up from a very young age.
I also happen to be a Cancer, and while I don’t believe that our signs instruct all of who we are, I do happen to be a pretty typical Cancerian — a homebody, a mother figure. Even at two, I had my dolls on a strict schedule for their bottle feedings, diaper changes, and naps.
I think I dove pretty hard into caregiving at three, when my grandmother died and my mother, deeply in grief, had a breakdown while trying to get me and my little sister into the bathtub one night.
She cried and wailed and fell on the floor in a loose pile of limbs that couldn’t do anything but grab at the little girls who were hanging off her. I had never seen anyone do that before and I was certain she was dying. Something clicked inside me, some deep sense of responsibility for the people around me that I had never felt before. I had to take care of them to keep them safe, I realized.
My mother eventually calmed down and apologized and explained what had happened — that she missed her mom so much and it was so painful to bear her absence. In my mind, her turnaround was thanks to my hugs and the way I had stroked her arm and whispered, “I love you, Mommy, I love you.” I thought I had taken care of her and “saved” her from dying.
There was no turning back after that. That role of caregiver became my identity.
My youngest brother was born when I was almost 11. Jack was the light of our family’s life. We all doted on him, and I hovered over him so much, he literally called me “Second Mom” throughout his childhood.
When I was a teenager and my mom would send me out to pick up groceries, I’d take Jack with me, and he’d follow me down the aisles pushing one of the store’s mini carts. I’d often make him lunches when my mom was in bed during the years she was in and out of the hospital. I always had snacks in my purse for Jack and when we were all out at big family events or on trips, I’d check in with him regularly to make sure he had had enough water or that he’d put on a fresh layer of sunscreen.
I took care of my mom, too, especially after the cardiac event that almost killed her. I’d already been an emotional caretaker for her, after that pre-bathtime breakdown, always trying to comfort her when she was sad, or calm her down when her temper flared (a common occurrence).
But during the years she was struggling to get a diagnosis and proper treatment for her heart issues, I became a much more literal caretaker. I helped do the laundry. I sometimes picked up my siblings from school or drove them to and from their friends’ houses. I made lunches and dinners. I helped my brothers clean their room, I dusted, I vacuumed.
I didn’t have much of a life of my own, which in a way was fine with me. I’d been to so many different schools by then, my social connections were tenuous. I was overwhelmed with my undiagnosed anxiety disorder which was only made worse by facing those endless halls at my high school where bullies streamed by in jostling currents.
By that point in my life, I didn’t want anything to center around me. I didn’t even want to center around me.
My family needed me and it was so much easier to take a backseat to my own life and focus on them.
My dear friend Frank often expresses concern that I spend too much time taking care of my family of origin than I do myself. Yes, twenty years later, my life still revolves around my parents, siblings, and now my siblings’ children.
I didn’t expect my life to play out this way, as you might imagine. I thought I’d be like most people and marry in my twenties, have a few kids, and be the center of my own life. Except for one thing that should be noted — that’s not necessarily being the center of one’s own life. It’s often another form of caregiving and revolving around other people. But back to my point…
Nope, I am single and childless and much of my time is spent worrying incessantly about my parents’ and my nephew Alex’s health. I also spend a lot of time physically assisting these family members. I go to my dad’s twice a month to do his laundry, clean his bathroom, file his paperwork, and do other miscellaneous chores. Every couple of months, I spend several days with him doing bigger tasks and occasionally taking him to his appointments.
I see my mom at least twice a month and help her in her never-ending battle to get control over her clutter — a battle we’ve been fighting since I was born. It’s a little hopeless, I admit, but I know how heavily it weighs on her so I do what I can.
And I go to my sister’s at least once a week to help with the kids. If Alex gets sick, I drop everything in my life to help take care of him — which is not because I feel obliged as is often the case with my parents, but because I adore Alex and would do just about anything for him.
In some ways, I love being a caregiver. I love being needed. I love helping people. I love nurturing others. I don’t have a family of my own, so I sometimes feel like I have an empty space that I’d like to fill by being a mother or helper to others.
But I also don’t enjoy being a caregiver. I sometimes even resent it. I don’t like that my dad relies solely on me, out of all his six children, because I don’t have a family of my own. It bothers me that I’m almost never the recipient of caregiving, but almost always the caregiver. I’m troubled by the fact that I think I hide behind caregiving — that it’s an easy role for me to take on, one that gives me a very good excuse not to dive more deeply into my own life.
And it worries me that I’m not sure I even know who I am without the label of caretaker.
In recent years, I’ve had to explore my boundaries around caregiving, due to my dad’s refusal to create an elder care plan. When the time comes, I know he expects me to drop everything and figure out how to get him into assisted living (despite six-month waiting lists and the fact that he cannot afford it without veteran’s benefits, for which he refuses to apply) when his girlfriend is no longer able to care for him any longer. He also expects me to stay with him whenever his girlfriend goes on extended trips even though I’ve told him he needs more help than I am able to provide.
I’ve had to say no to him in recent months — an action that is heartbreakingly difficult for me. And when his girlfriend sent me a note saying it was time to talk about getting him into assisted living “at some point in the near future,” I told her I would not be able to participate in that discussion until the two of them set a firm date. I explained that the emotional toll of the past two years of having these discussions only to have them go nowhere is too much for me. I can’t do it anymore unless both of them are ready to take action.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to take care of my mother, too. I’ve been trying to make her happy, protect her, and manage her emotions since I was a toddler. I can’t say I’ve done a good job of it, nor should it be my job.
As for the kids, and specifically Alex…well, that’s mostly as healing for me as it is for them. Those are my surrogate kids and they genuinely bring me joy. And for a child like Alex, who has demonstrated such bravery in just the first year of his life, I am happy to make sacrifices for him. I’m happy to be a caretaker for him.
But I circle back to the same question: Who am I beneath the caregiver?
So many women have been taught that caretaking is the fulfillment of our destiny as females. It’s so deeply ingrained that I often wonder what the world would look like without that expectation. How many women would get married and have children? How many women would take on the care of their parents with no expectation of help from their brothers? If we were allowed to focus as deeply on ourselves as men are, would we have broken that glass ceiling by now?
And why is it so scary to imagine a life in which we are our own sun? In which we don’t revolve around our children, but they revolve around us? In which we develop more balanced orbits with our parents, siblings, and partners?
We are taught to define ourselves in relationship to others. We’re taught that we can hold the world together if we take care of everyone. We’re taught that our nurturing is for others, not for ourselves.
What would we be without all of that?
© Yael Wolfe 2020
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