The hidden stress on female caregivers.

So many people are embarrassed to admit that being a caregiver is not part of who they are. That makes the whole experience that much harder. They labor along under the expectations of society, meanwhile taking care of someone who is very ill.

Women are expected to selflessly drop everything to take care of a sick relative, regardless of ability, interest, or skill. Simply being female doesn’t mean that you are also a cook, a nurse, a counselor. These are skills that must be learned. You don’t suddenly know how to care for someone who is terminally ill. Nor do you suddenly have the desire to, just because it is expected of you.

What about your income in the meantime? You don’t still get to take in a paycheck when you quit your job to care for a relative. There is the Family Leave Act – but that only ensures that your job can’t fire you for going on leave. They have to give you a job back. It may not be the job that you had, however. It also does not mean that you will get paid in the meantime. It is leave without pay.

The caregiver’s closeness to their relative is irrelevant. The mother is abusive? Father raped her? Brother stole, lied to her? Mother and father in law are dismissive and treat her like she is stupid? Doesn’t matter – your duty is to tend them, because you are a woman.

This is unreasonable.

There is a reason that my “Death Guilt” post always gets a lot of hits. People don’t talk about this stuff. We should.

When a man is well enough to go home from the hospital but not well enough to take care of himself, he’s sent home if he has a wife there. When the same thing happens with a woman, she’s sent to a nursing home to recuperate. It is assumed that the wife will know how – and be able to (mentally and emotionally) take care of him. It is assumed that a man will not. This is insulting to both sexes.

I’ve heard from people who work in nursing homes that they judge a family that doesn’t visit. They think they are selfish. They don’t know the history of the relationship. They have no way of knowing how abusive (mentally, emotionally, physically, psychologically) the person was to their family members. The effects of this abuse remain even when (if) the abuse stops. They may never go away.

Sometimes the abuse stops because the person is no longer able to be abusive – not because they don’t want to. It is far harder to hit someone when you have Parkinson’s disease. It is far harder to insult your children when you have dementia and can’t even remember that they ARE your children.

Being a caregiver should be a gift, not a demand. It should be because you want to, not because it is expected.

Just because your parents gave you life does not mean that you have to take them into your home and care for them when they get old. They chose to have you. You did not choose to have them. This is an unequal relationship.

When you marry, you marry that person – not their family. You make a legal statement that you will stay with them regardless of their health. You do not make the same promises to their parents. There is nothing about the marriage vows that obligates you to sacrifice yourself to take care of them. This is an unspoken assumption that is damaging and must be called out.

Wander (short story)

He’d been walking a long time. Days? Weeks? Years? It no longer matter what time it was. It was today, always today. He had nowhere particular he had to be. He wore no watch, carried no day planner. His calendar was free.

He walked away from it all some years back and had just kept walking. When would this walk be over? He’d not planned on starting it, so perhaps it would end the same way.

It started suddenly. Just like with spring tulips, it seemingly sprung up all at once. Only a careful observer could see that change had been coming a long time.

It happened suddenly for him, that was for sure. One day he gathered up a duffel bag’s worth of possessions, put on his shoes and her all weather coat, and walked outside. He never thought he’d make it past the yard, but he did. Then he thought for sure she’d stop him when he got to the end of the street, but she didn’t. Every step further from that house his fear grew smaller and his excitement grew larger.

The thought of leaving never crossed his mind all those years. Not like he was happy being there, mind you. It was just that he didn’t know he had a choice. It was just like Hagar and the well. She was suffering and all along what she needed was right there and she couldn’t see it.

He walked three blocks fueled on fear and excitement before he started to wonder where he was headed. It was strange to feel so much at the same time after a lifetime of not feeling at all. Perhaps he felt once? Surely he had. He couldn’t remember.

At the edge of the neighborhood he decided to try to feel, but not too much. Which way? Straight? Right? Left? Turning around and going back was right out, he knew that. Just thinking about that made his stomach get smaller and tighter and warmer. Sounded like “no” most emphatically. This was new – his body was a sense organ, tallying pros and cons and providing the result. It was like having to learn another language to figure out what it was saying. Why trust his brain to tell him how to react, when he can use his entire body? His stomach loosened when he faced right. Okay, that way.

He didn’t know where that way lead, but it was the same no matter which way it took him. He’d never been allowed out of the house. Never been given a map of the city, or of anywhere for that matter. There was no television in the house either, and certainly not a computer. He had no idea that there was a whole world outside of the house, and that was how she planned it.

He was lucky she’d even spoken to him, or he’d never have picked up the language. She didn’t at first, but he overheard snippets of words and sentences when she’d have her boyfriend of the month over to spend the night. Sometimes one of them would try to talk to him, try to make friends with him as a way of placating her. Perhaps he thought he could stay longer if he turned out to be father material? The way to a woman’s heart is through her child, right? Those that tried might as well have saved themselves the trouble. Once she realized they just wanted free room and board she cut them loose and changed the locks again.

All these years later, his body told him more than just how he felt. The rain was coming soon. His nose told him this. The hairs on his arm said it was going to be a long quiet soak. His big toe told him the mist he was in would pick up, grow just enough to be annoying and cut down on visibility in about 20 minutes. That was enough time to find a restaurant to wait it out.

Another wanderer had taught him the tricks of the trade. Look for a restaurant that is a little busy, but not overly so. If it wasn’t busy enough he’d stick out. Then the employees or customers would notice. If he was lucky, they’d gently wake him themselves. If not, a cop would be called to do that chore. Sometimes he’d simply be asked to leave. Sometimes he’d be told to never come back. On the other hand, if the restaurant was too busy, a customer might sit too close to him and spot that he didn’t quite fit. Perhaps they’d notice his aroma, or realize he was sleeping, or notice that he only had a soda in front of them.

The goal was not to be noticed.

A soda bought you a table for at least an hour. Keep it refilled and it looked like you just got there. Plus, the sugar and caffeine didn’t hurt. It was great to get refills – you could have a two-liter’s worth of pop for pocket change. If you felt like it you could even take the cup for next time if you could find another one of that chain. If that one was busy enough they’d never even notice you’d not bought anything from them.

Actual sleeping required some skill and a prop. Find a flip phone on the side of the road or at a local thrift store, hold it open in your hand, and you could slouch down and make it appear you were checking texts while you dozed. People rarely looked long enough to notice your fingers weren’t moving. Most folks had been taught it was rude to stare.

If you were homeless for longer than a month you started to become invisible. People just didn’t want to look at you, to see you. They were afraid you’d catch their eye and say “Excuse me sir? Can you spare some change?” They didn’t want to hear whatever story you made up to convince them or yourself of your worthiness. It was easier to pretend you didn’t exist. It was a little lie they told themselves.

He was through with lies. They were too hard to keep up with, too hard to justify. They grew and grew, one lie leading to another, becoming a tangle like weeds or rope. Before you knew it you were lost or tripped up. He decided it was best to tell the truth, but not too much of it. Too much talk spoils everything.

He carried as little money as possible, same as everything else. It all weighed him down. Everything took up space, either in his bag or in his head. Traveling light was about more than having an extra pair of socks or a small bottle of shampoo.

The rain was almost over. Time to go.

Like water off a duck’s back

I know a lady who is teaching her daughter to be a battered wife.

She doesn’t think that this is what she’s doing, of course. She says she’s teaching her to let things roll off her “like water off a duck’s back”. She wants her to not get riled up by things that happen to her. This is a good idea, but how she is going about it is disturbing.

Her way of teaching this lesson is to tap her daughter repeatedly in the face. The taps aren’t quite slaps but they are close. It is at least ten at a time. The daughter will say “quit it” or try to pull away and the mother will keep doing it. The daughter is about eight. The mom can easily tap her again when she pulls away, so the abuse continues.

I knew something was disturbing about this when I saw it but I couldn’t give words to it. Now I’ve figured it out. What she’s doing is teaching her daughter that she should just accept it when anybody abuses her.

How perfect it will be for a man with low self-esteem to find this girl who has been shaped for him. She will not complain or stand up for herself because her own mother, the person who she supposed to learn from, who is supposed to teach her healthy ways of taking care of herself, has taught her that she is supposed to be abused, and that this is just part of life. Her mother, her authority figure, is teaching her that people will try to harm her and that her only acceptable response is to let it happen.

“Child-care provider”?

It is questionable when a patron says she is studying for an “early childhood education” degree so she can open a daycare, yet she shows no kindness to her four year old daughter.

Toddlers cannot sit still and entertain themselves for an hour (or more) while their parent uses the Internet at the library. The mother (who is young enough to be confused for her sister) does not bring anything for the child to do, and speaks through clenched teeth to her daughter if she does anything at all other than sit still. If she speaks to her child at all it is with angry tones.

Perhaps she is a single mother. Perhaps she has no family around to help out. Perhaps the only way she can attend school is to use the public computers at the library, with her daughter beside her. I’m glad she is trying to get an education so she can support herself and her child. But there are many different career options available. The one she has chosen does not fit her temperament. I highly question her capacity as a child-care provider when she does not show any capacity at providing care for her own child. If her future customers knew how she treats her own child, they would never trust her with theirs.

I’ve noticed that people are usually on their best behavior in public. If ignoring or growling at her child is her best, then I’d hate to see how she is at home.

How NOT to do Pastoral Care.

There is a lady I know who took the same Pastoral Care class that I did. She is a nurse and goes to church regularly. She is certified as a minister in her church. She isn’t ordained, per se. I thought that she would know how to handle it when I told her some heavy news.

My mother-in-law is now in the hospital. She passed out and hit her head. Just days earlier she found out that her cancer had spread to her lungs. I know that means she has just a few months left.

I don’t want this lady to pray for her to live longer. That isn’t why I started to tell her what was going on. I thought we were friends, and in a way we are. She tells me heavy stuff and good stuff. She tells me about the important things going on in her life. We celebrate together and mourn together. But it really is that I celebrate and mourn with her, about her issues, and she doesn’t return the favor. It isn’t reciprocal.

One thing that you have to remember about Pastoral Care, about mindfully listening to someone while they are in a bad situation, is that it isn’t about you. You aren’t supposed to talk about your situation, or compare, or outclass. You can’t tell the other person a story of how it is worse for you or someone you know. That kind of “perspective” isn’t helpful and it isn’t kind. It is the exact opposite of what is necessary.

What is necessary is just listening, and I mean really listening fully. Not being distracted, not trying to leave, not looking around at your phone or watch. You can ask the other person how they feel about it, and you can say “Gosh that has to be hard” but that is about all you are allowed to say.

They just need a safe person to talk to – one who can handle this information in a way that is healthy for both people. A good listener is like Houdini once he had prepared. He could warm up his stomach muscles in just such a way and then anybody could punch him in the stomach as hard as they wanted and he’d be fine. He had trained himself how to do this. A good listener does the same. If they aren’t ready for it, a hard story can destroy them, so they have to train to be able to receive it. Taking a pastoral care class is part of this training.

I should have known better when I first started talking to her yesterday. Just after I reminded her that my mother in law has pancreatic cancer (not a pushover kind of cancer), she turned away and made some (unrelated) joke to the instructor of the class we were in. I felt slighted, but I decided to give her another chance.

When she turned back to me, I kept on with the story. I’m a bit torn about what to do because of the history of physical and mental abuse she allowed in her house. It is my father in law’s fault that the abuse happened, but it is her fault that it continued. They were both very immature when they got married. They are both still immature now, and they are in their 70s.

So some of the issue that I’m dealing with is how much are we supposed to get involved in this situation. You reap what you sow, right? But as a Christian, I’m supposed to forgive, right?

I just feel like if I pretend nothing happened, then I’m doing the same thing she did. I’m saying that it was OK. And it isn’t OK. Abuse is never OK, whether you are the one doing it or you are the one allowing it. By allowing it, you are sanctioning it.

So this lady, this minister, this person who has taken the same class I have and should know better, she starts telling me a story. Now, it isn’t a story about her, but it isn’t a helpful story. It isn’t enlightening, and it isn’t useful. It doesn’t tell me a way to deal with this situation. It actually makes me feel worse.

(Trigger warning)
(I didn’t get this warning when I got this story)
(Such is life)
It was a story about a couple that she knew in a nursing home. Both husband and wife were in separate rooms, and it was for a terrible reason. The husband was abusing his wife, sexually, and their children were OK with it. “She’s his wife” they’d say, as if that excuses rape.

(Warning over)

She went on and on with her story and I felt trapped. Finally it stopped and there was some silence. I digested this, still not knowing what to do about the situation I brought up, and feeling worse because of the story she told. Helpless. Raw. Frustrated. Dirty.

I digested this story and knew that my boundaries had been violated. I told her that I can’t handle those kinds of stories, and she apologized. She said she was a nurse and terrible things happen around and to nurses all the time.

She proceeded to tell me some of the horrible things that have happened. It got graphic.

Somehow her apology ended up being even worse than the reason for the apology.

She didn’t see the error of her way – she didn’t get that telling that kind of story to anybody isn’t a great idea. It is especially a bad idea if the person is experiencing a problem.

I can handle it. I’m pretty strong, emotionally. I’ve learned a lot about boundaries. I wonder about anybody else she might “help”, and how they will react.

I now know that I can’t trust her with anything heavy.
She’ll drop it on me.

The purpose of taking a pastoral care class, in fact, the purpose of being a minister, is to learn how to help people. It isn’t to carry someone else’s burdens for them. It is to carry them with them for a little while. When you do that, you make it a bit easier for them to see what they are supposed to do. When you do that, you give them a little breathing room.

You are never supposed to add to their burden.

Navigating the “Do you have children?” question.

A patron was making small talk recently, and then it became large talk. He doesn’t know anything about me other than what he can see. Some of what he sees is the mask that I have to put on as part of working customer service. I like helping people, but I’m not their friends. They get confused sometimes.

He asked me how I was doing, and then after that, asked me how my husband was doing. He’s never met my husband. He knows I am married because I wear a wedding ring. He doesn’t know I’m married to a man, even though I am. Just because I am a woman wearing a wedding ring doesn’t mean I have a husband. Nuns wear wedding rings. Lesbians wear them too if they are in committed relationships.

I replied with the vague and noncommittal, “He’s fine”.

Then he asked if we had children, to which I replied “No”. He pressed. “Why not?”

Stupid question.

One – it is none of his business.
Two – what if we did and were heartbroken that we were infertile?
Three – what if we did have a child and s/he died?

I said no, that they are too expensive. Usually that is enough to stop this line of questioning. Sadly I get it a lot. I don’t get why strangers feel it is OK to ask these questions. Perhaps they think they are being friendly, but they don’t realize the potential minefield they are entering. They just don’t think. It could open up a lot of heartache for someone.

He pushed further, and I was done. He said “When you got married, didn’t you want to have children?”

He only knows my name because he’s read it on my nametag. He’s crossed my boundary already and hasn’t read my lack of engagement as a “go away” sign. I’ve not asked him how his wife was doing (I know he has one because he uses her library card as his own) and I’ve not asked him if he has children. A lack of reciprocal questions should indicate stop asking questions.

I was done. I didn’t want any more of this. I didn’t want it to start off with. I pulled out my biggest card.

I said the truth.

“Both of us were abused as children, and so we don’t want any.”

End of conversation.

There is nothing more to be said. No more pleading to get us to have children. No more trying to change our minds. No more prying.

In the past I would have felt bad for even saying that. I would have felt bad that I had to cross over the line of polite conversation into this. I would have felt bad for having to establish my boundaries.

Now I don’t. Now I know I must, and if I don’t draw a line, essentially people will invade my mental space. It is just like if a person shows up at the door to my home. I have the right, the duty, the obligation to establish how far he can get in.

Normally, I have the ability to decide if I even open the door, but a customer service job blurs that line.

Here is some advice – don’t ask strangers if they have children. If you ignore that advice, then don’t push if they say no. Don’t ask why. Don’t try to talk them into having children. There are plenty of kids on the planet as is. And there are plenty of bad parents who should have thought twice about having children. Maybe if they weren’t pressured by family, friends, and strangers into having them, they would have saved everybody the trouble.

Risk of drowning

My parents were constantly exposing me to risks. Really dangerous risks. Lethal risks. Many of them involved drowning.

They thought it was a good idea to take me to the site of a local K-mart that had gotten flooded. This was before the levees were put in place in Chattanooga, and the entire store and the parking lot was flooded. My mother held me in her arms and waded into the swirling waters. I was a toddler, maybe three. I can remember trying to claw my way out of her arms to get away from those turbulent waters, those unpredictable waters. I didn’t know where I thought I was going to go, but I knew I needed to get away.

They thought that it would be a good idea to tell six-year-old me that the train that we were going on in New York was going to go under a river. They somehow thought that was something I needed to know. I remember, almost forty years later now, being terrified of this idea. What if the walls broke? All that pressure of all that water. It would come in, on top of us, and kill us. We’d die slowly because we were in a subway train. But we would die, certainly. The water would seep in, if it didn’t crush us first. I can remember nothing more of this experience, because apparently the idea of it simply short circuited my brain and I went to sleep. I woke up at the end of the journey.

They thought it would be a good idea to tell me that the wall that I saw when we were in New Orleans meant that we were twelve feet below sea level. That wall was the only thing that was keeping the water from engulfing us. From engulfing me. That wall was all that stood between me and a watery death. That death would have been faster than in the train, but still terrifying. I was twelve, and not past the idea of irrational fears. The wall had held this long. Surely it would hold longer. Surely it wouldn’t cave in just at the moment I was there. Surely.

My parents kept exposing me to these risks, these dangers. They kept thinking that this was a fine way to parent. I thought that they were good parents, and in many ways they were. They tried their best. They did the best with what they had. They meant well. But they weren’t ideal. And the fear of water stuck with me for a long time.

I can remember one time when we were on one of our last family vacations. I was around six, and we were in Florida. I don’t know why we stopped going on vacation. There were twenty more years of sullenness and sulking that happened after that – and that was between them. I’d expect that from teenagers, but not from middle aged people. Perhaps we didn’t have enough money. Perhaps they didn’t like to spend that much time together anymore. Perhaps they were just going through the motions.

It doesn’t matter.

I remember going out into the sea and getting turned upside down. I remember the water was all around me. Perhaps a wave had engulfed me. Perhaps I’d wandered out too far and lost my footing. All I remember was that I was in the water and I didn’t know which way was up. Somehow I didn’t worry about it at the time. It seemed normal. The next thing I know, my Mom grabs me by my foot and pulls me out of the water.

They didn’t teach me how to stay safe in the water then. They didn’t teach me any survival skills in general. Perhaps they didn’t know them for themselves. Perhaps they didn’t think that was their responsibility.

I took swim classes later, when I was probably eight. We went to the Cumberland Y at the time. I faked learning how to swim. I didn’t know I was faking it. Turns out that I could move through the water, but I didn’t know how to breathe at the same time. I was really good at holding my breath.

My Mom had told me that as soon as I learned how to swim I could get my ears pierced. I swam one day, and she thought I was fine. I wasn’t. I was still in the shallow water, and I still was faking it. In that swimming test I was allowed to stop and touch my feet to the bottom of the pool twice. I did. I caught my breath and went on. My Mom was so proud of me, and I didn’t know why. I got my ears pierced that afternoon. I still didn’t know how to swim. Water still was winning that battle.

When I was offered the chance to take the deep water class I freaked out. I knew I couldn’t fake it there. I knew that there was no way I could make it. I knew that was a death sentence for sure. I said no to the class and never went back there. My Mom didn’t understand my terror, and didn’t question it.

Years later I took a swimming class when I went to my first college. That school had a policy that everybody had to know how to swim by the time they graduated. Some benefactor had a son who had graduated, but had died in a boating accident because he didn’t know how to swim. The benefactor was overwhelmed with grief that his son had graduated with honors but didn’t know this basic life skill. He donated a lot of money to the school with the stipulation that everybody had to know how to swim, at least in a basic way, by the time they graduated.

I took the class the first semester to get it over with. I took it, and I took basic swimming. I learned how to breathe. I learned how to turn myself over to rest. But most importantly I learned how to not freak out in the water. I didn’t learn this from my parents, and I’m sad. I’m sad for them that they taught me to fear water rather than to respect it. I’m sad for them that they never understood the damage they did to me.

I now take water aerobics for exercise, and I’m grateful for it. I actually do it in the deep end, with a flotation belt. I’m glad that I’ve gotten over my fear. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over wondering what other psychological damage my parents wrought.