Beware the Caregiver Trap

When you’re the mother of a special needs child, your temptation will be to don a superwoman cape and do it all. Here are five reasons to resist.

By Michelle Laver

I’ve always been a caregiver. It’s just who I am. Maybe because I was the oldest of four children. My mother was always needing help with my little sisters, and as time went on I began looking after others as well. By the time I was 11, my favorite thing was throwing dinner parties for my parents and their friends. I’d do all the cooking and the serving, too.

It was the same in college. I was always the one taking care of things in my sorority. Even my major, politics, was about caregiving. Because what is politics if not the art of listening to what people need and helping them find a way to get it?

My daughter Katie has cerebral palsy, and when she arrived she spent the first five years on my lap. We had a stroller and a crib, but Katie preferred my lap, so that was that. At the time, that’s what she needed. And whatever else she needed, I was there to provide it.

There are hazards to being a caregiver, of course. It’s easy to neglect your own needs and wear yourself out. I recently learned that the stress levels of those caring for people with Alzheimer’s are 23 percent higher than non-caregivers.

Of course, caregivers are always downplaying these hazards. Because even if it were possible to delegate some of the work to someone else, it’s usually easier to just do it yourself. Chances are you’d just end up doing it anyway when whoever you asked for help makes a mess of things.

But I’ve learned a few things over the years about caregiving. It’s important to delegate. And to take care of yourself. If you’re a caregiver like me you’ll probably resist this advice, and in anticipation of that I’ve put together a list of five reasons you shouldn’t. Read on and decide for yourself.

Reason #1: Emergencies Will Happen

Maybe it’s a son or daughter, maybe a parent, maybe a spouse. But let’s say you’re the only one who knows your loved one’s daily routine—meds especially. What happens when there’s an emergency and you’re not around?

Reason #2: Martyrdom Helps Nobody

One time I thought I had the flu. Being a caregiver, and an expert in downplaying my own needs, I was sure I only needed a cup of tea and some bedrest. My husband insisted I go to the hospital. I resisted, naturally, but when I got there it turned out I had blood poisoning from a tooth infection. If he hadn’t made me go to the hospital I could have died. And who would have cared for my daughter then?

Reason #3: It’s Good for Your Marriage

Caregivers can handle a lot. But there always comes that point when you overreach, and then the resentment begins to build. Maybe you’re like me and emotionally retreat, or get passive aggressive. Or maybe you just blow up. Only about 16 percent of marriages involving special needs children last. And this is part of the reason why.

Reason #4: You Deserve to Be Appreciated

If your spouse isn’t helping with the caregiving, he or she is far more likely to undervalue how hard it is. Don’t be taken for granted.

Reason #5: Your Child’s Love Is Worth Sharing

This is a big one, and maybe the easiest to overlook. As every caregiver knows, part of the appeal of caregiving is the unique opportunity it creates for intimacy and closeness. By reserving all the caregiving for yourself, you are also preventing anyone else from experiencing that intimacy and closeness. And when the relationship is significant, like a father and a daughter, that matters.

Even after recognizing all this, it can still be hard for me to prioritize my own needs, and delegate to others. Maybe caregivers are different on some fundamental level. Like, that’s just how my brain works. It’s just easier for me to recognize the needs of other people than my own.

I accept this about myself. And this helps me accept that sometimes I need others to help me recognize my own needs. Even caregivers need caregivers. When my daughter was born, it was my mother who came to my rescue in a way that I could never have done for myself. My husband often does the same.

If you don’t have someone in your life who’s already doing this for you, it’s a good idea to recruit someone—a parent or sibling or friend. And just tell them the truth: That sometimes you have a hard time recognizing your own limits and you’d be grateful if they reminded you to take a break now and then.

I am slowly getting better at this. I love traveling, and I’ve taken several trips in the past few years. Last year I turned 50, which felt like a real turning point. My next goal is to travel somewhere by myself. Maybe southern India. I went there as a teen and I still remember the bright colors, the burning curries, and amazing hotels.

But it doesn’t have to be a huge trip. Sometimes taking care of yourself can be as simple as a drop of lavender bath oil, or cotton sheets with a high thread count. Or just taking a moment to listen to a song you like. A song that moves you somehow, and reminds of how wonderful it is to be alive.

Michelle Laver is mom to 11-year-old Kate Laver, whose battle with cerebral palsy inspired the creation of Kate Farms Inc., which manufactures ready-to-drink shakes made with all-organic ingredients.

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