Do a simple search and you will come up with a plethora of articles, books, and podcasts on the challenges of caregiving, the importance of self-care, and a laundry list of everything one “gives up” in order to take care of another person. And there is a lot of truth in those resources.
But what you probably won’t find is a thoughtful discussion on the opportunity caregiving provides to take a pause in your life to make sure you are on the right track.
I’m nearing the ten-year anniversary of the loss of my mother to multiple myeloma. And as I reflect on that pivotal moment when I first became a caregiver, I’m struck not by the hard work of the endeavor, but by how the experience changed me fundamentally as a person and as a professional in ways that I am just now coming to fully understand and appreciate. Put simply, the person I am now bears almost no resemblance to the person I was before caregiving. And I am forever grateful for that.
If I had to guess, and it is a guess, I’d say the following had a lot to do with the changes in perspective, priorities, and direction that I experienced.
The opportunity to pause.
Caregiving can interrupt your life in such an abrupt way that it can be quite jarring. No one is prepared to be thrown into the role of caregiver. No one. But once you establish a routine, something strange begins to happen. I call it the beauty of boredom. My day-to-day routine prior to caregiving was work at work followed by work at home. There were the rare moments between “shifts” where I could pursue my own dreams, but for the most part, my life revolved around my job.
When I suddenly found myself in my childhood home, surrounded by the things I used to treasure, it forced me to take a long, hard look at the life I had created. While there was some good there, I realized that in many ways my life had taken the path of least resistance, where I just accepted what people threw at me without question and without putting my own needs and desires on the table. It was in fact, how I became my mother’s caregiver in the first place. But that “decision,” if you can even call it that, was years in the making.
I have to admit that it was a difficult realization for me. It was a lot easier to blame others for my decisions and the problems in my life. It was much harder to acknowledge the role I played in setting myself up for a life I didn’t want.
Caregiving provides the space to have those moments of reflection and self-awareness. In the quiet of the waiting room, in the hours when my mother was resting, and over those sleepless nights, I experienced breakthroughs that I would not have experienced had my life not been interrupted. I was able to become acquainted not just with the person that I was, but also with the person that I wanted to be. And it was in those moments that I began to dream again about what I wanted to become, outside of the roles I had been playing to date.
Now before you say it, I admit that my life was in complete limbo. I didn’t know how long I’d be home with my mother. I didn’t know whether I’d still have a job at the “end” of caregiving. I certainly didn’t know what the end would even be, and frankly I was almost too scared to think about that. But I was coming to a clearer understanding of what I wanted for myself, independent of the role I played in the lives of others, and that was completely new for me. And while I still mourn the loss of my mother, I am so grateful for the extended time I spent with her and how through that experience my life came out better on the other end.
For those in the midst of caregiving and living lives “interrupted,” I urge you to lean into the boredom and allow yourself to really take a hard look at your life. I found journaling incredibly helpful to chart my thoughts as well as to fully explore my feelings. Here are a few prompts that you may find useful.
• Are you the person you want to be?
• Was your life before caregiving the life you wanted?
• What dreams have you put to the side?
• Was it your choice to become a caregiver, or did you take the path of least resistance? If the latter, has that been your approach to life?
• Can you say that your job is your career of choice?
• What can you do differently to inject more of what you want into your life?
• Can you imagine a life after caregiving? What does that look like for you?
I encourage you to continue to explore opportunities to reassess your life while caregiving. Connecting with other caregivers is also a great way to support your journey.
Wendy Pearson, actress and higher education administrator, developed a passion to assist family caregivers through the struggles she experienced as a caregiver to her mother. This article represents part of that journey and the important lessons that she learned about herself and her life through the process. Following the death of her mother, Wendy founded the Caregivers’ Social Network (CSN) to provide support and friendship to family caregivers worldwide. Many of the features and resources on CSN represent the support that Wendy wishes she had received as a family caregiver.