Have you ever wanted to stand in a crowded place and yell, “What about me!?” I must confess that I have. It seems like my whole life has been spent taking care of other people and their needs before my own. Recently a friend reminded me that not all people are CAREGIVERS. It stopped me in my tracks. I had never thought of that before. The more I have pondered that simple statement, the more that it makes sense. I am a perpetual CAREGIVER. It is how I am wired.
I am the oldest of three children. My “baby” brother is 18 months younger than me, and my sister is four years younger. At an early age my parents insisted that I “be the bigger one” and to “just walk away”. I was “older and should know better”, and I needed “to be the example for the younger ones”.
When my brother was young, he was thin, small, and overly sensitive. This made him an easy target for bullies. I remember dodging in front of “big boys” as he ran home, and in Jr. High I took a punch for him that ended with a fat lip. Boy wasn’t my mother mad! I would do anything for my little brother with the small stature and the big heart. I still would.
My little sister was much more independent and still is today. She didn’t allow me to be the caregiver very often. I loved to dress her up like me, and tried so hard to convince her that Barbie’s (not trucks) were the best inside game to play. Even as a toddler my brother and I would have to go fetch her as she played naked in the neighbors yard. She just didn’t care what anyone thought. She still doesn’t. I wish I had her confidence.
When I was ten, my parents decided to move from the suburbs of Portland, two hours north into the great unknown. Popular styles in the south had not hit our rural community, so we stood out immediately. Polyester pant suits were not “in” yet and I remember that blue jeans were one of my first requests.
We moved in March. I cried for the first two weeks. My brother cried for the next two. My sister didn’t seem to mind at all. As a teacher, it makes perfect sense. Routines were in place, children had core friend groups established, and we felt like an outcast. Everything was new. We felt like we had been placed in a foreign country.
We moved from a 12 house street with 4 unground swimming pools to 350 acres and about the same amount of cows. Up until that time, we had only owned two dogs, a cat, and fish. We had always had plenty of friends to play with, and with the move, we just had each other. We left everything we knew and family we adored.
I think this is where caregiving for me really began. In the process of selling our home, it had to be shown. I remember distinctly, receiving a call that the house would be shown in 1 hour, and my siblings and I dashed around with my mother to get it ready. One time, I was babysitting while Mom grocery shopped, and we had to prepare the house ourselves!
When we moved to the farm, we gained a whole lot of responsibility. We were expected to help, and often were unable to participate in activities at school or in the community because of it. However, we all played an instrument and our parents hired the band director to give us private lessons in our home once a week. We were each allowed to play one sport in High School, although we were able to talk Mom and Dad into intramural volleyball once I had my driver’s license.
The truth is, I love to take care of people. I loved to protect my baby brother from harm (however, it should be noted that he grew taller than I, can wrestle black bears with his pinkie, and runs a very successful business). My sister grew up to be a talented teacher, mother of two and more creative, active and playful than I ever dreamed. I could take lessons from those two.
Caregiving is my natural tendency. My siblings were my “test dummies”. Today I care for my students, my parents, my children, grandchildren, and my husband. Once a week my husband and I volunteer our time in the nursery, (which is probably the most challenging). Taking care of others wears me out, and wears me down. Sometimes I get lost in managing everyone and I forget about me.
To the observer, it looks like I have it all together. Some would call me an extravert. Those who know me, know better. I am a little too sensitive, have low self-esteem, and am an overachiever who is never satisfied with my own work. I worry too much, try desperately to organize everyone and everything, and I struggle to stay positive when the world crumbles around me. I secretly and privately dread the future…
It is my fault that I feel invisible because I come across self confident. I confess, that I am a big fake. My secret is that I dream about hiding out in closets and sometimes I sit on the floor of the shower refusing to come out. I have had to learn to self sooth, much like an infant. I slap on the face so that nobody worries, and I drink a little more coffee than I should. Sometimes I sneak through Dunk’s on the way to and from school if I have a couple extra dollars to spend. I turn the music up really loud when I hear a good song and I have been known to pull over on the side of the road to lift my hands to the Heavens as the tears roll down my face. I look at funny clips of baby animals. I rub my hands on leather and smell handbags at the mall. I put my face in down pillows and remember pulling the feathers out of the corner as I went to sleep as a child. I light candles, sit by the fire, scratch the head of my favorite dog, snuggle with my moody cat, and text, call or FaceTime those that give me reason to continue.
Joy is a choice. Caregiving is not. It is part of who I am and what makes me ME. Up until a month ago, I thought we all were wired that way. It makes so much more sense now. The problem is, caregivers need care too because it is a lonely and exhausting job. Some of my favorite “pick-me-ups” are around a surprise care package in the mail, a special note or treat, or a pat on the back followed by eye contact asking, with feet firmly planted and waiting for an answer, “How are you doing today?” or my favorite…”How can I pray for you today?” Everyone needs to feel needed and be made of once in a while. Even the caregiver. Especially the caregiver.