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.

Choice – not coercion. On defining women by relationship to others.

Women are defined by who they are connected to. Meeting new people, you’ll hear these questions – “Are you married?” or “Do you have children?” Both questions seek to define the woman by who and how she is related to others. Women are rarely seen as valid citizens, much less as people, if they are not connected. A woman who tries to define herself on her own merit and ability is in for a hard time.

Romance novels teach women an overwhelmingly unrealistic life goal of finding and keeping a spouse. Men don’t get this script. Ever. Men don’t fill themselves with a diet of definition by relationship to others. Men read about adventure, and superheros, and strength. The characters, their role models, are strong and independent. Women read about being swept off their feet. Men are active, and women are passive. Women’s lives are things that happen to them, acted on by others.

There are countless books for women and young girls about how to find and keep a mate – whether it is a boyfriend or a husband. There are specialized ones if the woman is over 35, where it is seen as more difficult to land a choice selection. The books are framed in the language of strategy and the hunt. Women have to seek out men, because otherwise they will be left out, and left wanting.

There are no books for men like this, and there are no books telling women how to live a happy life without a spouse, thank you very much. If you are single you are seen lesser-than. “Spinster” is not equal to “bachelor”. It should be. Being single, of either gender, needs to be viewed as a valid life choice, and not a failure. It is better to be single and happy than married and miserable.

Single women who wish to remain that way often go into nursing, teaching, or library services. All of these jobs pay enough money that a woman doesn’t have to have a spouse to support her. Yet all of these jobs are nurturing jobs. They involve taking care of and helping other people. So a woman is still defined by her relationship to others, whether she is single or not.

It wasn’t that long ago that women who got married lost their names. They were described as Mrs. John Smith – never as Mrs. Jane Smith. It was as if John suddenly developed a female alternate persona. It was never that the woman gained status, it was as if she just disappeared. By removing her first name and differentiating her by just her title of Mrs., she lost her identity as a unique person.

How often are women who have children referred to by the children’s names? She is “Sally’s Mom” – Sally is never seen as Jane’s daughter.

I bring these points up because sometimes you have to see injustice and imbalance before you can fix it. There is nothing wrong with being married, or having children. There is everything wrong with making those choices no longer choices, but mandatory. There is everything wrong with overt and covert social pressure to make women define themselves by getting married and having children. These are not life events that should be entered into lightly. These choices will affect a woman’s entire life. Women should marry or have children out of choice, not coercion, and know that they will be accepted if they choose not to do either of these things.