I was a child caregiver, my mother having developed rheumatoid arthritis when she was in her twenties. I can barely remember her driving our old red-and-white station wagon. My older siblings can remember her riding a bicycle. By the time I was ten or so, she walked only with crutches and needed help getting in an out of chairs, and with dressing and toileting. She spent much of her time in the kitchen, where a chair on wheels–those designed for dental assistants worked best–gave her some mobility on the linoleum floor. She planned meals and wrote grocery lists; my sisters and I did the shopping and cooking. She kept busy with projects–sewing, volunteering to make phone calls for the church women’s group, organizing meetings and events, writing letters, being a listening ear for my peers in the church youth group. My siblings and I brought her the materials she needed for the project of the moment. And her medicines.
She was in chronic pain during those years, as the arthritis ate away at her joints and bones. Not surprisingly, then, she also had significant, long periods of depression, as well as intense frustration. She had my sisters and me drive her to Kathryn Kuhlman faith healing services, hoping for a cure that would give her back a pain-free, mobile life. Sometimes she was angry with God, for withholding healing from her. Sometimes she was angry with herself, believing that her inadequate faith was the problem. My father, a Lutheran minister, did not encourage the faith-healing excursions. But he also often tended to retreat into his work when the going got emotionally tough at home, leaving my sisters and me to handle that as best we could. Other adults, especially one aunt and the mothers of my friends, helped out when they could with practical things, but not so much with the emotional issues. My parents both did their best, and were amazing people in many other ways. I never doubted that they loved me. And it was still hard.
It was not so much the actual tasks I had to do, that were the problem. I knew my mother needed personal assistance, and that family members needed to take over a lot of the necessary homemaking tasks. For the most part, I loved my family, felt compassion about my mother’s illness, and was willing to do my part. The work could have been organized better, to be less disruptive, but the practicalities of that, too, were relatively minor issues. What hurt then–and what stayed with me for decades afterwards–was that I didn’t feel I was allowed to have my own feelings about doing these tasks.
Frankly, there were Saturday mornings when I wanted to sleep in, and didn’t want to get up to help her get dressed. There were TV shows I wanted to watch, rather than be interrupted three times in a half hour to bring her things she needed. There were things I wanted to do with friends that were prevented by having to cook dinner, or by not having a mom to drive me. The annual search for an appropriate Mother’s Day card was always a challenge. Most cards on the rack expressed thanks for things that my mom couldn’t do, and that we daughters instead did for her.
One of my mom’s projects, at one point, was reading a book on “Parent Effectiveness Training.” This suggested, among other things, mirroring back what your child says to you to be sure you understand it, and they feel your understanding. Some of the resulting conversations we had went like:
Me: “I’m thinking about going to go the park with Marie.”
Mom: “You’re thinking about going to the park with Marie?”
But during this period I decided to get a little braver, since she seemed to be making an serious effort to improve our communication:
Mom: “Would you like to get me that coffee cup?”
Me: “I wouldn’t like to, but I will.”
I don’t remember the particular words of her reply, but her emotional response was anger. The message that came through loud and clear was that there was only room for one set of feelings in this situation, and it wasn’t mine. I think, in retrospect, that her need for help made her feel so vulnerable that she had to pretend that everyone around her always wanted to provide it.
Other adults seemed to need me to be free of resentment as well. A well-meaning adult mentor in my Camp Fire Girls group, knowing of my home situation, encouraged me to choose the name “Happy Helper” as my Camp Fire Girls moniker. (I consented…but changed it later on.)
There are better ways of handling this kind of situation. Toni Bernhard, in her excellent books How to Be Sick and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness, provides great advice for the ill and their caregivers. Among her advice for caregivers is “Do not be reluctant to share your challenges and difficulties with the person in your care.” I’m afraid that one wouldn’t have succeeded in my childhood family. My mother’s illness, along with the serious mental illness suffered by one of my brothers, pretty much sucked up all of the emotional energy in the house. Sometimes when you’re overwhelmed, you’re just overwhelmed.
But another of Toni Bernhard’s pieces of advice would have, I think, helped me immensely at that time: “Don’t judge yourself negatively if resentment arises now and then.” Really? My mom certainly responded as if resenting and loving couldn’t happen at the same time, and I internalized that message. I got quite good at not expressing my feelings, shoving them down until I no longer even knew how to feel them or even find them. Being in a relationship where someone wanted to control my actions without acknowledging my feelings came to feel familiar. I was in my forties, fresh out of an adult version of that kind of relationship and in therapy, before I started to understand that I could have two emotions at the same time.
I also started practicing Zen meditation during this period. My Zen community has many manifestly loving, compassionate, warm people. You might think this is a good thing, but in fact it caused periodic flare-ups of certain negative stories I had been in the habit of telling myself. It seems we all harbor some secret story, about a flaw we have that no one else has. Deep down, we feel separated from others, fundamentally inadequate in some way, imposters in our own lives. My secret story had been that I must have stepped out of line when they were handing out the compassion gene. I would admire these other people in my Zen sangha, and by comparison feel myself to be unloving, distant, and cold. It’s true that I tended to shy away from hands-on care opportunities. Sometimes the phrase “I already gave at the office” would pop into my mind, feeling that I “already gave” up a chunk of my childhood. It took me many years of Zen practice to see that this wasn’t, in fact, a problem. With a little self-compassion, it’s easy to see how my childhood experience would naturally make some situations feel less immediately safe to me than others. By releasing my hold on a particular image of what compassion should look like, I’ve also become freer to recognize it in many forms. Being less blinded my “deficiency” story, I’m better able to connect with the suffering world.
Simply feeling and acknowledging resentment does not, of course, mean stoking, feeding, and dwelling on that resentment, turning it into a favorite subject for musing or a character trait. Neither does it necessarily lead to rashly lashing out in our words or actions. Just as pain serves as a useful warning sign if we put our hand on a hot stove, anger and annoyance are often warning signs that our boundaries are being violated. Because we are humans, these feelings simply arise. Sometimes they can motivate us to take corrective actions that are within our power. Sometimes all we can to do is notice the resentment rise and–as all things, in this transient world, will do–also fall away, as we go about our day.
Love and resentment. They don’t exclude each other.
If you know a child caregiver, please ask them how they are doing. Just that could help. If you are a young caregiver, and you feel like it, feel free to get in touch. I see there is now an association offering support, too.