Recently, I ran into a woman I know casually. I hadn’t spoken to her in years but I knew that she had been a caregiver for both of her parents for at least a decade. It had been so long since I’d last talked to her, I assumed they must have passed on by now. I was surprised to hear they were both still alive at nearly 100 each, and she had moved in with her parents to care for them around the clock. She had hired some help but, like most caregivers, felt she could provide better care herself. Like most caregivers, she also struggles with guilt. She worries that nothing she does for them is good enough.
It seems to me that there should be a way to scramble the letters in caregiver and come up with the word “guilt” because they go hand-in-hand no matter how well you do the job.
I spoke briefly about managing caregiving while raising my young kids at the same time. She confided that she had always wanted to have kids but felt she had made a mistake by not having them earlier and now it was too late. She had never married either. Her parents had taken up all of her time and she said she had missed out on a family life of her own.
Instantly, I could see the bigger picture for her. First, I explained to her that being a caregiver while raising children is a guilt-laden challenge. Those of us who have done it know that you never feel like you can meet everyone’s needs adequately and you often feel torn as to who will get your attention at any given moment and who will have to suffer. Do I stay with my mom at urgent care or do I attend my daughter’s big award ceremony? Do I bring home an unhealthy takeout dinner again because of yet another caregiving crisis that ran late?
Yes, there are benefits to having children exposed to caregiving. They learn to be less self-centered, more giving, and concerned about the welfare of older adults, ideally. They come to appreciate the importance of family. But there was no point in going into the benefits to children with this woman because she didn’t need this information.
She needed something else. She needed hope.
The woman I was speaking to was not expressing regret that she had chosen to devote so much of her life to her parents. She was only sad because she believed she had missed out on a part of life that was important to her. I knew deep in my heart and soul what I believed to be true about her and I shared it with her.
“Listen to me. Now is not the time to bring a partner into your world. But soon it will be. You are a beautiful woman inside and out. I promise you that someone will see that in you because you are amazing and so giving. He will love you and bring you into his family. You will have his children and grandchildren and they will love you, too. It just isn’t time now because you are too busy.”
She became teary and said, “But I want him to know my parents.”
“He will know them,” I assured her, “through you.”
We hugged goodbye and there was not a dry eye between us because love, truth, and hope had been shared.
One of the beautiful things about overcoming difficult lessons in life is being able to share what we have learned with others.
The goal as we go through our lives is to become wiser, but in order to gain true wisdom, we usually have to experience personal trials and overcome challenges.
Caregiving is one of those experiences that can challenge us to our deepest cores. It makes us question the point of life, and, often, our own self-worth. I think of caregiving as being in a type of war trench. While you are in the trench, your perspective is off. You cannot always appreciate how truly valuable you are to the person you’re caring for. You can’t always see how much they value you, either. And sometimes it feels like you will stay in that trench until you die; life seems bleak. But when you finally emerge, you might be able to gain a new lease on life, though some caregivers don’t recover from the toll the role has taken on their lives, emotionally, physically, nor financially. But for the majority who survive the experience, they can impart knowledge and hope. They can teach the new caregivers who are struggling. They can become the teachers and the guides. The sensei caregiver.
If you are in a difficult time right now, keep your head down. Maintain your focus. Your time will come. Don’t give up on that. The entire universe will conspire on your behalf to bring you joy if you allow it. Truth. Then go out and share the wealth.