Many people think that caregiving and womanhood go hand-in-hand. We’re nurterers by nature, we’re led to believe. Probably because they don’t want to do it (whoever “they” are). You’re good at it–so you should do it. We’re also good at cleaning the bathroom–not because we have a knack for it–it’s mostly because nobody in the house seems to even notice (I’m generalizing).
Caregiving can seem to run counter-intuitive to staying a woman. Maintaining a vibrant, healthy, dynamic, enticing, savvy and nurturing selfhood can literally be sucked out of you by never-ending days, with the medical and insurance world, worry, regret, guilt, grief–who can be “womanly” with all that?
The truth is that what’s behind going on behind most front doors is that we know caring for our loved ones–whether babies or elders–is an important job–and most of the time, only one person in the family has the strength, autonomy, and chutzpah to do it. We’re lonely and scared, brave and exhausted. We fear we don’t know what we’re doing. We fear we’ll be found out.
We try to be patient and kind but oftentimes, we fall short. We feel like we’re trying to outrun disease and death–and impossible task. We feel helpless to stop pain and depression. We love what we do but we worry about our own health and relationships–and we feel as if we’re giving huge chunks of our own life away–and in some ways we do it willingly, but we grieve all we’ve lost. We’d cry or even give up, but we don’t have the time–and something deep inside us urges us to get up and go on.
Let me clarify this: there are many ways to be a woman. We don’t all need to be pin-up dolls. We’re far to rich and textured, complex and fascinating to be shoved in one tiny box. We can be cowgirls, butchers, dentists, outriggers, poets and prophets. Short hair, no hair, long hair, big boobs, no boobs, there’s no one way to be–but all these ways of being can be in jeopardy if you (or others) ask too much of you and you never fill your reservoirs.
But how? Your snarky self asks.
I know. My caregiving years were largely make-upless (not that you have to) pudgy due to horrible eating at 2 am (me and a bag of Oreos met for regular intimate discussions on the stresses and strains of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s who had no respect for the words, “It’s after midnight for (#*%& sake!!!)
And worse, I was ugly–to myself–ugly thoughts, self-deprecating eat ca-cah and die, your life is over, your friends are gone, you’ll never go on vacation again, your kids will never want to take care of you, not after this, sex? are you kidding? can we say hello 200 pounds? That kind of looping inner-monologue.
I often wonder, if I could gather all my thoughts about my weight, my body, my hair, my boobs, my s0-and so doesn’t like me, am I pretty, am I sexy, too sexy, not enough, way to much–and I took all those seconds and used that brain power and time to say, learn a language, get a degree, or…run a small country…what could I accomplish?
So I’m not going to preach to you about treadmills. I’m going to tell you how I got through, and I do mean got through. “I will find you. No matter how far or how long, stay alive and I will find you!” I could hear my inner Daniel Day Lewis from Last of the Mohicans yell to me from the cascading waterfall.
So how did I get through?
I journaled all the crap going on in my head–allowed myself to vent all the really ugly scary nasty truthful tearful and sometimes hopeful, crazy and funny things I was thinking and experiencing.
I walked outside and cried a lot. Nature had a way of soothig my soul. A red cardinal on a branch, a sunset so red and so orange that I forgot my pain. The wind whipping in and around the trees turning the whole world into a dance.
I screamed in the car and in the shower. Yes, I too am surprised the neighbors didn’t call the cops. I hoped someone would call DFACs (department of children and family services) to come to my home and SOMEONE, ANYONE away. Do they have foster homes for fussy moms and rolling eyed teens? How about for grumpy caregiver?
I gave up trying to keep a tidy house. Between a hospital bed, portable potty, bedpan, cane, walker, mother who liked to go “shopping” or “trashing” in the middle of the night (she would have fit right in at a frat party), teenagers, dogs, cats, home health aides traipsing in at all hours of the day, I just gave up. Welcome to clutter-ville.
I did decide that my room was off limits. Our bedroom was the only room I refused for junk to pile up in. I bought a gorgeous bedspread–that kind that can thrown in place and look decent, painted the wall behind my bed a sumptous eggplant and bought a nice strong lock for my door. Best thing I ever did–that and the coffee maker I put in my bathroom so I could have my coffee before I hit the world full-tilt.
I watched the Food Channel and HGTV. I read about a half a poem a day. All the reading I could fit in–but I wanted it to make my soul howl for beauty. I opened art books so when I walked by I could Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
I signed up for college. CRAZY, I hear you say. Yeah, but one night a week I left my mother in the care of my husband and two kids (God bless ’em) and I attended class. It was the most amazing experience of my life. I have no idea how I pulled it off, how I studied, but I did.
I drank good coffee. Elixar of the Gods. That’s all I’m saying.
I decided that I was probably going to have to deal with the weight thing after caregiving. And I did.
I allowed my loved ones to hug me–and help. That was probably toughest of all. Me, super-amazing, I can do it all–accepting assistance. Admitting I could in no way do it all. Not even do it half. More like do it crappy. Multigenerational households, sandwich generation folks are ironically blessed. Triple the work, but lighter the load. My kids learned kindness, patience, and reaching out beyond themselves. My marriage grew stronger. Add caregiving to the list of things we survived.
I got to where I would talk back to my mother. That’s the great thing about Alzheimer’s–she wouldn’t remember it in five minutes, but I sure felt a ton better! Not vile stuff I’d have to ask forgiveness for on her deathbed (that’s okay, too) but the honest truths/stand up for myself/I’m your adult daughter doing the best I can so back off kind of stuff. The stuff I should have been doing all along.
I allowed each day to be what it was. Some good. Some awful. Kind of like a rip-tide. Fighting against it useless. Just don’t drown. Let it take you–out–far out. Then, when it releases you, swim like hell.
Somehow, Daniel Day Lewis met me on the other side (recurring fantasy, I admit). My mom passed–but she was 92. Good long life–career, marriage, child, grandchildren–the kind of life we all hope to have. Overall, she didn’t get too sick or too out there until the last three, maybe four years.
She taught me how to live, lots of what not to do, but lots of what to do. I made peace with my biggest adversary. Not her, myself. She just led the way.
And my womanhood–it survived. Maybe those caregiving years weren’t my sexiest years–but sexy isn’t always the goal, now, is it?
~Carol D. O’Dell
Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle
In spite of everything, yes, let’s !
~Vincent Van Gogh