When I was still fairly new to caregiving, my oldest child was in 7th grade at a new school. Trying to meet her needs and those of her three younger brothers while trying to provide the best care possible for my older friend who was rapidly declining was a continuous challenge. I always felt pulled in too many directions. One day at the end of my daughter’s school year, I was planning to attend the end of the year award ceremony but a messy crisis came up in my caregiving situation. I was stuck until someone came to take my place. By the time my replacement arrived, I had missed my daughter’s award ceremony completely. When I found my daughter at school, she told me, “I made the Dean’s List.” It was said with a mixture of pride, and a hint of reasonable irritation with me for being unreliable. I was happy for her and proud, but I also felt like a failure as a parent.
I had done the right thing as a caregiver but had let my child down.
It is unpleasant to remember that day and not easy to write about it. But mine is not an uncommon scenario for caregivers in the “Sandwich Generation.” The sandwich generation refers to people who are caring for those in the generations above and below them at the same time.
Most caregivers struggle with guilt. It goes hand in hand with the job description. They feel that they aren’t patient enough, not loving enough in their own hearts. They didn’t spend enough time with their loved one; they felt angry about their burdens; they didn’t foresee a problem before it happened. To an outsider, the sheer volume of giving that a caregiver provides is heroic. But the caregiver can get wrapped up in all of the negatives and forget the positives. When a caregiver has to factor in responsibilities for even more dependents, the guilt can mount rapidly. The Bible says a man cannot serve two masters but tell that to a caregiver and she will say, “Watch me try!” And these determined sandwich generation caregivers will give it all they’ve got.
They will take care of their aging parents, and try to make time for their spouse, and try to hold on to their career while scaling back their hours, and try to attend all of their children’s school and sports functions. They will push themselves to their breaking points and possibly past it.
And they will feel guilty that they couldn’t do the impossible. But is there a way to put that guilt in perspective or at least quiet it?
A few months after my caregiving had ended because my loved one had died, I spoke to a new friend about my experience and about my guilt at being unable to provide equally for everyone during my role. This friend boldly suggested I had sacrificed my children to care for my loved one. My first instinct was to agree but then my perspective quickly changed. This thought that I had sacrificed my children was incorrect. I had allowed them to see what real life is about. Sometimes the world that children would understandably prefer to be child-centered cannot be that way. Sometimes the spouse that would prefer to receive the lion’s share of their other half’s time cannot have it. Because sometimes there is someone less fortunate and with tremendous, but relatively short-lived, needs who will have to take the priority with the caregiver. This is part of growing up, no matter how old you already are.
If you, as the caregiver, have shown others that there are people who have more urgent needs than theirs, you are teaching them to be less selfish. Better yet, if you are still making time for the healthy, precious people in your world, while balancing caregiving, you are teaching them about priorities, love and sacrifice. Your efforts might not be fully appreciated but you are teaching and demonstrating valuable life lessons.
Do you know what that makes you? It makes you incredible! Truly amazing! A person of note.
Guilt that you cannot equally butter both slices of bread is misplaced. Do your best to make everyone feel how much you value them but remember:
- Most caregiving situations are short-term compared to the relationships you have with your healthy spouse and children. There will be time for others to have more of your attention.
- You are teaching compassion, time management, and love. These are invaluable.
- You have to take care of one more person and that is you. I really do know how hard that is. Sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, and spiritual nourishment are all valuable, albeit lofty, goals. But one step you can take towards self-care is letting go of the guilt. Look objectively at all you do.
Tell guilt to be quiet. Do it, superhero. You’ll feel better and you deserve that.
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