By Cal Heath
Around three years ago, over coffee with a fellow forty-something-year-old, I put down my mug and wailed, ‘I am so tired of caring for others! I just want someone to care for me!’ My friend nodded vigorously in agreement, which encouraged more outpouring: ‘Where are all the people who used to care for me?’
Now, I’m two years into my Stoic journey, and the philosophy has taught me to reflect more rationally on feelings such as those of that day.
I’m not sure at which point in life the sense of being cared for began to dissipate and be replaced with the impression that I was the family’s Head Caregiver. I grew up in a robust support network; I had happily married parents, a sister, and a throng of doting aunties, uncles and older cousins within a five-mile radius of our home. Being at the epicentre of such a support network, I didn’t see the privilege; my respect for those whose experience growing up was in stark contrast to this—those who became young carers or had to find courage and independence to care for themselves from a young age—is immeasurable.
In time, older relatives passed away and cousins married and had families of their own, but I was on a career fast-track, had moved to a new city and didn’t register that the transition from ‘cared for’ to ‘caregiver’ had begun. Then, three years ago, the impression blindsided me; I had a new, multifaceted role: Main Caregiver, Disaster Manager, In-house Counsellor. I had been progressively taking on caring responsibilities, for older relatives as well as having children of my own, and amidst all the slicing up of my time and energy and doling it out to others, I had unwittingly drained my battery.
My life events are not unique. We all face the ageing and death of the generation above us, the one that perhaps made us feel safe. What could I have done to prepare for the transition from being cared for, to being a caregiver? The ancient Stoics spent time contemplating death, including their own. I was not a stranger to death, I had known it my entire life, but I had never spent any time contemplating my own ageing. If I had, I might have had greater awareness that life transitions, and our story changes as we grow older and we move into caring roles. I would have made friends with ageing, before it crept up on me.
Reflecting on the situation in my home, my husband and children had not asked me to appoint myself Head Carer, and they were bewildered when I did so and felt helpless when I was distressed about it. Yet the women in my family had all done the same, so I hadn’t known there were other ways to be.
The ancient Stoics were big on role models, so as I began to practise the philosophy, I looked outside of our family for examples of other ways that caregiving, of the ageing as well as of children and the home, could work. I talked to carers of all ages, from various caring environments including professional ones, and found a spectrum of caregiving scenarios. Some individuals were fully hands-on, taking on all their family’s caring requirements, some were entirely hands-off, outsourcing it to professionals, and there existed every combination in between.
This was a crucial step in my progress, because once I learned that other models of caregiving existed, it illustrated that my viewpoint—of being only person capable of the job, and that it was therefore my burden to bear—was an impression of my mind, because others viewed things differently and implemented different solutions.
I am one of those people who would use phrases like ‘is highly organised’ and ‘has a can-do attitude’ on my resume, and in the past I have tended to take the reins when challenging situations arise. I realised I had been doing this in caregiving and mistaking it for a measure of resilience. In modern society, we sometimes strive to become superheroes—wanting to bring our A-game to work and to our personal lives, and problematically, wanting to appear to be achieving success by ourselves. I wasn’t just taking on the caregiving, I was taking over it.
Proving I was so capable had temporarily made me feel self-sufficient and strong, but contrary to my belief, I was not nurturing resilience. I was pushing out my husband, failing to recruit my children and telling friends I didn’t need help. I was also experiencing guilt, for I am from a family where a high bar for caregiving has been set. As well as managing our own homes, my sister and I were cleaning our father’s house, doing his laundry and shopping, and maintaining his property. Every visit to dad saw me with a mop and bucket in hand, and visits were flying ones and not of great quality.
I was burnt out.
Stoic texts in hand, I progressed towards a more sensible model of caregiving by first taking steps to include my husband and children in our home maintenance. I reframed my view that I was in charge and that no one else could do the job as well as I, which required wisdom, self-control, and fairness to others. Nowadays, it is a team effort, and I am grateful for everyone’s input rather than critical of their standards.
With my father’s care, my sister and I assessed our finances and agreed that we could afford a fortnightly cleaner for him. At first, he stoutly refused, but with young children needing our time too, we had to be realistic about how much of it we could give to him. We found a wonderful lady to support him and the transformation was immediate—not just the cleanliness of dad’s home, but of his mental health. How we persuaded dad to accept support is an essay of its own, but my point here is that we had to be rational and firm regarding how much of ourselves we could give to others. Dad now looks forward to Shirley’s visits. It is enough to keep a small home pleasantly neat and it costs us less than the takeaway meal we forfeited for the support.
I will have to re-evaluate my caregiving duties as time passes, but I hope I am becoming equipped with the Stoic wisdom to do so in a way that is fair to those around me, yet kind to myself. As I reflect upon my own ageing with more understanding, I celebrate that I have a fundamental caring role—for not just my ageing relatives, but for the younger generation around me—and that they, in turn, are there to support me, too. I step back from viewing caregiving as a burden and instead view it from a place of greater honour and tranquillity. It is my role in my corner of the world and one that everyone can join in celebrating; we all have a part to play because all societies need caring people embedded.
Life is a journey of constant change, and challenging times are part of it. Epictetus cautioned against allowing impressions, when they appear, to knock us off our feet, advising that we sit with them for a while and see what they really represent. I contemplated this frequently as I journeyed from cared for, to caregiver, and back.
Recently, I overheard an older lady comment that her grandchildren had grown up and didn’t need her any more. She referred to herself as ‘redundant’. I felt the need to nudge her impression in a more positive direction, so I joined her table for coffee. I shared with her that, oh, wouldn’t I love for my grandma to be alive still, so we could gossip and mull over the perceived grievances of the week! I know my nanna would chuckle at my impressions and quote Doris Day, ‘Que sera, sera!’
What will be, will be. I hadn’t realised my nanna was so Stoic.
Cal Heath is an author and playwright from South Wales. She trained and worked for several years in scientific research in the U.K. and South Africa, but made lifestyle changes to meet family caregiving needs and doesn't regret it. Cal likes to write stories that spread a bit of sunshine. Her recent novel, Where They Keep The Sky, is a heart-warming Wales-based story, and her feel-good audioplay Johnny and June is available to listen to for free.