And What About You: Self Care for the Caretaker

by Robert Taibbi, LCSW

The PTO President just called asking Susan if she could head up the annual school fair committee. Oh, course, she said, without even thinking. She looked at her calendar and sighed. It was going to be another tough week. Not only did she now have this, but a grinder of a week at work, plus taking Scott to soccer practice after school, Ellen to ballet, then the finance committee meeting at church on Thursday. She wasn’t sure how she was going to get it all done.

A lot of women could easily stack their own jam-packed to-do list along side Susan’s. Whether it’s raising children, helping parents, serving in soup kitchens, or welcoming new neighbors, it’s generally women, rather than men, who more naturally step up and extend their time, rearrange their schedules, and reach out a caring hand to those around them. Their willingness and ability to seemingly “do it all’ are an obvious testimonial to the inherent strength, capability, and compassion of women, but it’s not without it’s price. When you always put others first, you, by default, always put yourself second. The ongoing stress of additional responsibilities, as well as the simple juggling of your time and attention, can leave you feeling tired, or irritable, or depressed. Sure, you may feel like a martyr, but deep-down not a very happy one.

So why does caretaking so easily fall into the laps of women? Anthropologists tell us it’s built into the differences in the sexes. Both in their play and in their relationships with each other, the social world of boys quickly revolves around who’s in charge, who’s the best, who’s on top. Girls, on the other hand, seem to gravitate to something much different, namely equality, connection, and intimacy, all sustained through the medium of conversation. While the running packs of boys on school playgrounds are developing the physical and emotional skills that they need to compete and achieve in the larger world, the smaller groups of girls are learning the subtleties of listening and soothing and nurturing vital to creating and maintaining close relationships.

Once home the patterns of the playground are mirrored and reinforced. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, backed up by the steady barrage of nurturing images from television, movies and books, serve as walking demonstrations of adult support and caretaking. If a girl is the first-born or only child in the family, her close contact with the adults make it especially easy for her to adopt a junior-parent role and develop a strong sense of responsibility . Similarly, should her home environment push her to be a protector of her siblings, as is common with alcoholic, addicted, or emotionally absent parents, it takes little time for these caretaking skills to become ingrained. Once established, not only do the expectations and praise of others help nourish and maintain them, but so does the girl’s own sense of feeling important, having control, or finding herself in the socially-accepted role of the silent martyr, asking little for herself while continually sacrificing for others.

By the time the woman-to-be is a teenager, the path to her own internal life can become overgrown and lost by neglect. Rather than using her unique needs and wants as the starting point for setting goals and choosing her behavior, she instead gets pushed along by a head full of rules – the “shoulds and oughts” – the first of which is that others should come first. And so the pattern is set in motion in which the caretaker cares for everyone except herself. Periodically, she may physically or psychologically burn out –feel overwhelmed by depression, or suddenly and unexplainably explode with anger – as the imbalance and unfairness in her relationships, and the neglect of her own needs rises to the surface. But it never stays there long enough to stimulate change because guilt – the Great Enforcer of the shoulds – quickly moves in to push it back down. The wants and needs go underground once more, setting the stage for yet another repeat of the cycle.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are some guidelines for starting to put yourself first.

See guilt as normal and an opportunity for change. Anytime you say no or fail to do what you normally do, expect to feel guilty, and find others doing their best to help you feel that way. If Susan, for example, were to attempt to turn down the request to help with the fair, the president’s sigh on the other end of the line would undoubtedly spark a wave of guilt, making it easy for Susan to cave in. But the guilt doesn’t mean she has to do it. It only means that Susan is psychologically on the verge of breaking a well-established should. Rather than automatically saying yes, or collapsing under the guilt, it would be better for her to think of it as an opportunity for choice, a chance to take one small step away from the automatic pilot she normally runs on.

Realize the difference between helping and being responsible for. Often much of the weight of helping is the result of heaping on the additional load of responsibility. Helping is exactly that – supporting someone to do something that he or she needs or wants to do. While you certainly have a basic responsibility for your children, this same ownership doesn’t necessarily extend to all the other projects and people you choose to take on. Susan may decide that she can help out on the day of the fair, rather than heading it up. Or perhaps she could help the President think of others who have more time. It’s best to keep the problem in the other person’s lap where it belongs, rather than transferring it to yours.

Make a plan. Look over both your activities and time and brainstorm a plan. Susan may decide to cut back on some of her church activities until her children are older, or organize (once again) a car pool system for soccer.

Where can you cut back on your time and responsibilities? Are there some daily or weekly duties or tasks that you can put aside, perhaps to another time in the future, or pass along to others who can step in and take them on? Are there ways you can make time to nurture yourself – a hot bath, perhaps, while your husband puts the kids in bed, a hour of quiet in the late afternoon for meditation or rest before everyone gets home for the day. Can you make time at work to eat a healthier lunch, rather than the hit-and-run junk food you’re too prone to eat when rushed? Ultimately, deciding where to start is less important than realizing that your needs are important and starting somewhere. Call for support. Is there more that your husband or kids could do to help out at home? Saying yes to your own needs may mean learning to say no to some of the things that your family has grown used to.

Rather than waiting until you’re overwhelmed, speak up now. Begin by talking, without anger, about the ways you’ve felt pulled, or drained or overwhelmed by all the demands that you feel. Family members often want to find ways to “give back” and help the helper, but feel stymied and put off by the caretaker’s seeming self sufficiency and message of “Don’t worry about me.”

Once they understand how you’ve been feeling, you open the door to their help. Make specific suggestions: Tell the kids that you will show them how to use the washer so they can do their own laundry, work out a weekly schedule with your partner that gives you time for yourself, ask your teenager to drive your daughter to gymnastics after school, ask your sister if she could baby-sit the kids a couple of times a month so you and husband can go out. By letting them know that you too have needs, that you too need help, you not only help create a more balanced relationship, but they have an opportunity to feel important and valued. By being specific, they know exactly what you have in mind.

As they begin to make changes, however small, be sure to notice and thank them – this is not only courteous, but will encourage them to keep it up. Expect that they may not do things the same or as well as you might, expect some grumbling, sloppiness, and forgetfulness on your family’s end, but see this as part of making the transition. If you stay the course, focus on the positive, try and ignore the negative, the old rigid patterns and roles will be broken. Everyone, including yourself, will find themselves developing new psychological muscles and plowing new emotional ground.

Finally, by learning to put your needs along side those of others, you are not only showing a healthy respect for yourself, you are, through your example, teaching your daughters, nieces, granddaughters how they can learn to do the same. This is a wonderful gift and a wonderful way of showing just how much you care.

Bob Taibbi is Director of Child and Family Services, Region Ten Community Services Board and the author of two books and over 125 articles on parenting, therapy, and family life.

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