Laurie Cunningham - Expectations of Female Caregivers
Laurie Cunningham, retired counselor and educator, is married to a wonderful man who had a stroke shortly after his long-awaited retirement. Their journey has been documented in cartoons, which can be found on Instagram (@cartooncoping) and her blog site at https://cartooncoping.wixsite.com/cartooncoping. This post was originally shared on Laurie’s blog. She writes in honor of National Family Caregiver’s Month.
A few years ago, my elderly father asked me to name the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. "Being a woman," I replied instantly. His response? "Pffft."
I tried to explain myself. "There's too much pressure to look attractive. But if you're young and pretty, you're not taken seriously. And then, when we're old and wrinkled, it's the same reaction."
I could have delved well beyond the skin-deep thing, but his face went blank. "What's wrong with being pretty?" he asked. That conversation made me realize something. I was trying too hard to get understanding from someone who would never have the same experiences as I had.
It's the same with my husband as a stroke survivor and me as a caregiver. Personally, I feel no desire to understand what paralysis feels like first-hand, and I suspect my husband feels equally reticent to feed me strained lima beans at some rehab hospital. The bottom line is that neither of us can fully understand, so how do we help each other?
The simple answer: We validate. In other words, we listen, we ask questions, and we summarize what they're saying without giving advice. If they complain, for example, we can say, Boy, it must be so hard to lose half your movement. The least helpful, most irritating thing we can do is try to talk them out of their feelings. They're not asking for pep talks and advice but, rather, an acknowledgment that they've been heard. As the saying goes, advice is worth exactly what you pay for it.
If you're a caregiver, I could give you that unwanted advice. I could tell you things you already know, like how you should take care of yourself.
If you're hell-bent on being a martyr, I might even say, "You have to take care of yourself to be strong for your loved one." In truth, though, I'd never say that to anyone, and there's an important reason.
The bottom line: we all need to take care of ourselves because that's what survival is about. It's our birthright. Self-respect. Period. End of sentence(s). No qualifiers needed.
Self-neglect and long-term depression, anger and resentment make people sick. Autoimmune conditions, cancers, and heart disease could easily follow. Sadly, I've known caregivers who admit to secretly wishing they'd fall ill themselves so someone would take over their duties and bring them magic flowers and matzoh ball soup. I remember feeling this way, too. Unfortunately, there isn't much satisfaction in attending one's own funeral while lying flat in a satin-lined box. That's no way to enjoy a party.
Dr. Gabor Maté wrote about the connection between emotions and illness in his book, When the Body Says No (Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection). In both his book and YouTube Video he mentions caregivers and people who put others before themselves. Sharing obituaries he found in newspapers about young people who gave to others despite terminal ailments, he reminds us of the unspoken societal message that being a martyr is considered honorable, even though the expression, Only the good die young, seems to describe the pattern better.
When it comes to being comfortably selfish, there's a lot of social pressure for women to put others first. Although I've known many males who are caregivers both professionally and personally, there seems to be a difference in the messages society gives to each sex, which carries over to the way we define ourselves. Women putting themselves first are often described as selfish bitches. But men? Self-respecting leaders.
You may have read those studies of people having higher expectations of females over males. For example, teachers who reprimand girls more. Parents who excuse misbehaviors in boys that would be labeled as undesirable in females. Boys will be boys, they say.
You might ask, then, What does this have to do with caregiving? Having not been a male, I can only speak from a female perspective. For us women, it does NOT mean learning how to be better caregivers. Rather, it means moving the word Selfish from our mental list of curse words to our roster of self-respecting traits. It also means doing so without expecting others to give their approval because, in most cases, they won't. I mean, who's going to tell you to stop bringing them hot chocolate and fire you from cooking their meals?
The majority of current caregivers grew up internalizing the notion, from womb to the out-skirts, that the mother needed to be pleased in order for us to be fed, held and loved. From the logic we applied in infancy, we internalized the notion that our survival required us to please the woman who shared her blood supply and loaned us a couple of body parts to keep us alive. If we displeased her, we reasoned, then…hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
According to Dr. Gabor Maté, that's the link between what we learned as children and what becomes a potentially unhealthy ingrained pattern throughout our lives. I sometimes wonder if that's why people react negatively to angry women in politics and the workplace. Did we simply grow up linking a pleased woman to our own survival, and a displeased one to our emotional death? Is that why there's no male counterpart to the phrase, Happy wife, happy life? Are you tapping your foot to Tracy Byrd's song, When Mama Ain't Happy?
It makes sense, too, that women often become martyrs after growing up in dysfunctional families with parents who suffered from bouts of anger, addiction, and mental illness. These children develop a fear of making others angry with them. They don't want to be judged poorly by an authority figure who points a finger at them as if selfish is the ugliest, lowliest thing a human can be.
I've also seen those martyr traits—putting others before self unhealthfully—in women who've grown up a generation or two detached from that kind of dysfunction. One example is a counselor friend whose father was a pastor and both parents were very loving, yet she married a suicidal man whom she took care of for many years, much to her own physical and emotional demise. I'm guessing that somewhere back in her family tree, her parents got the message that selfish was a dirty word, and martyrdom was honorable. Their religious teachings compounded that belief, validating what they learned in childhood about the importance of pleasing parents as a way to be fed, respected, and loved.
Although I've written today about societal expectations for women to be selfless caregivers, the good news is that we're not dependent upon society for our survival. Heck, even parental approval is no longer essential. We simply need to listen carefully to the voices in our heads, and recognize those moments when giving of ourselves is depleting our positive energies. So I guess in that sense, yes, we really do need to be the best caregivers we can be…