Caring for You, Caring for Me
By Elizabeth Arnold, mother and therapist
Caregiving as a profession is very different than caregiving in one's personal life. As parents to children or as caregivers to an aging parent or to a family member with special needs, how do we replenish ourselves? How do we stay full and centered enough to take care of the others who depend on us? There is often no 'behind the scenes' space to take a real breather, to take some private time where we don't have to be 'on' or completely present for someone else.
How do we keep ourselves healthy and strong? I can't imagine a harder -- or more common -- balancing act. If taking care of ourselves, though, feels like an additional burden ("you mean I have to take care of myself too?"), that might be a good time to talk to other people, like a professional or others in similar circumstances.
The people and situations we have responsibility for can prompt a wide range of feelings, some quite difficult to contain. Many caregivers find it painful to acknowledge feelings of anger, resentment, or even aggression towards the dependent person. This, coupled with exhaustion and lack of sleep, creates a real challenge and can be experienced as dangerous to our sense of self as a loving person and caregiver.
Acknowledging these darker feelings might also lead to guilt, shame, and both fear and secrecy, which in turn can add to social withdrawal and feelings of isolation. It is important to give ourselves permission to feel the whole range of feelings and to know that they are a normal part of caregiving.
It's also important to identify sources of strength and nourishment and to cultivate them. This might mean making time for other important relationships or exercise. Whatever it is that makes you feel stronger, happier and more rested. A good model to follow is the one always instructed before air travel with kids: "Hold the oxygen mask over your own mouth and nose before aiding your child". If we can breathe and think clearly, we can be much more effective in everything we're trying to do.
Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D.
26 West 9th Street, Suite #1E
NY, NY 10011