Invited to speak at a Pinktober event recently, I chose the topic ‘Caring for Caregivers’. October and November are months dedicated to increasing awareness on breast cancer and prostate cancer, and as such, focus on self-care. My topic caused a bit of confusion with people expecting another speech focused on the disease, the patient, or the treatment – certainly not the caregiver.
What I have realised is that the term ‘caregiver’ comes with an entourage of associated emotions and labels. The focus is always only on the person being taken care of, with associated emotions ranging from guilt to selflessness. By association, the word ‘care’ has come to take on the meaning of only being directed towards others – more so when you’re a woman, the ultimate caregiver.
I’d like to share a brief version of the popular children’s fable, The Magic Porridge Pot. A poor couple with barely enough to eat themselves hears a knock on the door. They open it to find a tired, hungry traveller. Inviting him in, they share their frugal meal with him and give him a bed for the night. The next morning, the grateful stranger reveals that he is, in fact, an angel and would like to reward their generosity. He gifts them with a magic pot that will never, ever run out of food.
I hear you sighing longingly and asking where we can order this magic pot, too. Let me know when you find it! In the meantime, coming back to caregivers, we like to think of ourselves as magic porridge pots with an unending source of care to give. The truth, however, is that we need to stop every now and again to recharge our batteries and refill our resources so we can resume sharing them with others. In other words, we turn the care inwards and direct it at ourselves, i.e. self-care.
Having been raised to be caregivers for others, with the concept of selfless love drilled into their heads, most women find self-care a difficult concept to accept. It battles with all that they have been told a so-called good *insert role* does. You put others first, more so when you are a wife/mother, always putting the needs of your family above your own. While this school of thought is gradually tapering out, it is still strong enough to make self-care something we need to write about in a magazine, so women will know it’s perfectly alright for them to indulge in it themselves.
The primary gut response to sometimes even thinking about taking time out to do something just for yourself is guilt. On a personal level, this can sound like:
“This is time I should be spending on carrying out my role as professional/spouse/parent/daughter.”
“It’s not like I really NEED to do this, it’s actually a bit of a luxury/pampering/treat.”
“Shouldn’t I be spending this money on something more useful?”
“Doesn’t X need something like this more?”
“Isn’t this a bit selfish of me?”
The same guilt sounds more like this when it refers to a professional context:
“I am so desperately unhappy in this job, but feel so guilty about quitting.”
“Just because I’m being disrespected here doesn’t mean I have to jeopardise my job by speaking up.”
“I know I deserve a better role, but I’ll be letting down so many people if I move on.”
It’s quite funny how the guilt can spring up over something as silly as taking a break for coffee with a friend or buying fancy bath salts, let alone the high-level guilt that comes from taking a longer break to just chill and relax, or resign from a toxic workplace. This guilt stems from the intrinsic belief that time and money need to be spent on (and earned for) someone else selflessly.
After the guilt comes the talking-down. Talking yourself and your needs down in relation to someone else and what they are going through or what they need. Talking down whatever state you are in – mentally, physically, emotionally – with accompanying justification is something all women go through. And it might sound something like this: our mums’ generation never made a fuss about this; this is natural at this age; everyone in my profession has this level of stress; who isn’t stressed these days?
When we finally do get to move past the talk-down and still continue with our plans, a well-placed sarcastic question or comment from a colleague or relative could have you backtracking in a second, cancelling all plans because you realise they are so right.
Justifying the Spend
This is the one that women find the hardest. A legacy of the hunter-gatherer days for women is that we were the ones who managed whatever was hunted/gathered, ensuring it lasted as long as possible and was distributed as needed. Resource management has, ever since, been our strongest suit, often leading to wives being teasingly referred to as the Finance Minister or Home Minister.
Having always been responsible for managing the resources for the wider group, the concept of staking a claim for ourselves therefore goes against the grain. There is the niggling feeling that this could have been given to someone else because they might need it more. So how do we negate all this hard-coded conditioning and rewrite it with the empowering belief that we are worthy of care, too?
Put Yourself First
Referring to the magic porridge pot story earlier: you cannot be who you are meant to be or do what you are meant to do if you are not in the best shape physically, mentally, and emotionally. By ensuring that your batteries are always fully charged and you are working in peak form, you are ensuring that what you give others – in any capacity – is your best, making it a win-win for everyone.
If Not You, Then Who?
It’s a question that usually stumps my clients. Because the truth is that you are the only one who values your well-being (or should value it!) so much. If you think you deserve better, more, or something else, newsflash: you are the only one who can give that to yourself. Too often, we wait for a manager, spouse, partner, or parent to see what we’re going through and take care of it for us. Not going to happen. Wake up and go after what you want.
Talk Yourself Up
We know what the opposite does, so go ahead and switch it around. Tell yourself how impressed you are with what you are doing or have just done. List out the attributes you are proud of, the specific details of whatever it is you said or did that made you proud and include even the silly little ones.
Imagine you are talking about someone else and objectively list out the reasons they deserve to make that decision. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to do for someone other than yourself. It is often very easy to appreciate and acknowledge what others do and achieve, and simultaneously find it equally hard to do the same for ourselves. This easy workaround is a great way to get over this and learn to value yourself and your own well-being more.
You Are Someone’s Role Model
Keeping that in mind will help you make decisions that you won’t regret. People, kids in particular, model our behaviours – not our words. So, if you are in a role that impacts how others think and behave, you have a responsibility to show them how to take care of themselves and their well-being by taking care of yours. Lead by example. You never know who you could be inspiring with your proactive self-care.