Self-Care is not Selfish
Let’s face it. Although caring for someone can be rewarding, it can also be an exhausting journey, even for the saints among us. It is hard to adjust to the feeling of being stuck and that your life is passing you by.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can have an enjoyable, meaningful life doing things you love, even while providing good quality care to your loved one. No way, I hear you say? Well, keep reading…
But before we jump into the how, I’d like to share a little about myself and my background.
I’m Mandy Walker. I’m a Carer Coach, a Social Worker and the eldest sibling in the family. I am also providing care to my elderly mother, who lives about ten minutes from me. I have two brothers who married women from other countries and subsequently live overseas. My father passed away over ten years ago and now I live alone with Finch, my three-year-old Cavoodle.
My mum, Agnes, is now aged 82 (but please don’t tell her I told you that) and lives on her own two suburbs away. You would think that taking care of her day-to-day needs would be easier because she is not that far away. But in fact, it has been more problematic. In my case, the proximity fuelled higher expectations and truth be told, some days, I wished we didn’t live so close to each other. Mum is also very traditional in that she expects to be cared for by family. After all, that’s how it is in many cultures and how she cared for her mother in her generation. Even with the demands and pressures on people in our modern world, whenever I raised the subject of getting mum some professional people in, to help a few hours a week, she would not even entertain the thought. Case closed!
For two years before Covid, being Mum’s primary carer was taking its toll on me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I struggled with feelings of anger and resentment. Mum would call all the time and expect me to be with her every second I wasn’t working. Half the time she created a need out of thin air so that she could guilt me into dropping in. I don’t know why but she always made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough for her. Those two years were the most depressing, anxious and unhappy time of my life. My needs were shoved to the back burner whilst trying to figure out how to best care for mum with my life.
Feeling anxious, exhausted and irritable are clues that you, like me, are getting dangerously close to ‘carer burnout.’ While I was in this state, I couldn’t provide the level of care my mother needed nor did I want to. Mum felt neglected, unloved, and it really affected her wellbeing and her sense of joy. I was short, impatient and sometimes felt resentful. No one wins in that situation. When you have nothing left to give, everyone loses. Sound familiar?
So, in a moment of reflection during my lowest point, I realised a truth that existed all along. It was a small and simple shift in my thinking that occurred. If the demise of my happiness and wellbeing, resulted in the demise of my mother’s happiness and wellbeing then my wellbeing was not independent of my mother’s but rather connected directly to it.
Eager to end my misery and get some balance back into my life, I made time to sit with my mother and share my new thoughts with her. I wanted to talk about the last six difficult months, how it was not in our best interest to continue the way we were and my thoughts on what needed to be added.
I began by apologising for my irritability, impatience and for causing her to feel unhappy and neglected. Mum accepted my sincere remorse and then went silent. Wondering what mum was thinking, I asked her what she thought we could do to avoid this situation again? How I could avoid becoming irritable and bordering on burnout and her lack of quality care again? There wasn’t the immediate epiphany I was hoping for, in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. My question was met with a great deal of push back. Because mum is quite a bit older, she always perceives her needs as greater. She looked on this season with a very traditional mindset as it was her rite of passage that I self-sacrifice for a time, in return for all the years of her self-sacrificing while us kids grew up.
I understand that mindset and am very appreciative of everything mum did for us kids. Having said that, life was very different in her generation and women didn’t work as much as they do now and families lived in communities. Nevertheless, perhaps mum wouldn’t have suffered so much if she looked at it another way. So, to help mum better understand, I used this analogy.
If you’ve ever flown in an airplane, you’d know that before each take off, the flight attendant instructs us that in case of an emergency to
‘Put the oxygen mask on yourself before attending to the needs of others.’
We all know that we cannot be of any use to those that are reliant on us unless we first ensure we are well. Somehow, as carers, we seem to forget that.
Using this simple analogy was very useful in helping mum realise that it is true. My wellbeing was just as important as I was the one she ultimately relied on for her primary care. Mum eventually accepted that my self-care also had to find space in her care plan and so we did.
I made it my purpose to give my wellbeing a scheduled place and time in mum’s care plan. Instead of my old unhelpful thinking that I was being selfish to make time for my own needs, I now looked at it as essential. This began a journey to investigate what affordable external care I could find, that mum would accept. I needed to find someone that could stay with mum and assist her 3 afternoons a week. To my surprise, I entered a community of local volunteers and local council-led initiatives that I didn’t even know existed. After some trial and error, I set up people that were more than happy to pick mum up and take her to a social group. I found a home care service that would visit mum an hour a day and attend to her needs. As I stepped out, I found out just how much external care was available.
So, when I changed the way I looked at things, the things I looked at changed.
So, now I look at self-care through a different lens. Making time to care for me is vital in ensuring my wellbeing to better care for my mother. I gradually gained a level of satisfaction in knowing that I was moving my life forward while still making sure that Mum was safe and comfortable in her home. Sure, there were still days where some of my choices were lousy, and perhaps my blood pressure rose a tad. However, now when I call in on Mum and tend to her needs, I do it from a position of fullness. Whilst not perfect, it has restored balance to my life. And mum (who would occasionally guilt me into more visits), now sees first-hand that a well-balanced Mandy is in both her and my best interests.