Caregiving is only in my past. Or so I thought.
First, let me say that I feel for everyone that is stretched to the limit this time of year, trying to maintain an already challenging caregiving routine with all the extra expectations of Christmas.
But that is no longer my role. The ones I made Christmas for are now making Christmas for themselves. The wonderful previous generation that I helped care for in their end years have all now moved on to the next plane.
I’ve struggled with this change. I’m sure anyone still in the midst of the caregiving role would think I’m crazy, and give just about anything for some time with no extra commitments and no one to be responsible for, even if just for a day. Those long blissful quiet hours? “Yes please!” would be the answer for many in need of a break from caring for others, and then being responsible for making a happy holiday for them on top of it all. That goes without saying!
And yet, there I was, feeling lost without it. The first few years of this were pretty dreadful. I couldn’t find my groove in the ways life had changed. The time alone with myself felt scary and daunting. I mean, I could function fine alone; I even came to enjoy some of that time and some of the things I accomplished alone (well, to be fair, not TOTALLY alone, there were always dogs). But underlying it all, there was always that fear of having outlived my usefulness and place in this life now that I wasn’t really “needed” by anyone anymore. This became even more challenging at the holidays. In an effort to make it all OK, I overbought for my kids, I overdid the décor, the food, the parties, all of it; to try and fill the hole that no longer being needed by the family had left. I worked and worked to make myself feel necessary ‘til I made myself too tired to even really enjoy any of it, and yet it still felt lonely and unfulfilling.
I think most moms, (and likely a lot of dads too) go through this struggle to some degree as the nest empties. But when your partner goes too, and that happens at almost the same time, the feeling of being adrift and without purpose can really ramp up, because ALL your caregiving roles are disappearing and changing at once. Roles that rather than feeling overwhelming and never ending to me, seemed to all end too fast, leaving a big hole of “now what?”
This year thankfully has presented some opportunities to do things differently at the holidays. I am not hosting anything, eliminating the stress of if and how well a kid visit will go. I do still have a tree and my lights up outside, because they please me…but gone is the urge to decorate “to the nines”. To cook up a storm of too much food that ultimately results in way too many leftovers. I stuck to a budget for shopping this year and gifts were modest and in my budget, or homemade, and I am trying not to stress that they won’t be seen as “enough” (mostly in MY mind, no one else’s). I am travelling to be with my siblings and their families this year instead of waiting at home for others to come see me (please Covid, eff off so I can still go). I haven’t seen any of my direct family since before the pandemic. I’ll meet my new grandniece and my niece’s hubby for the first time. I’m spending time with my new partner and his family when I return. A whole bunch of new, but fulfilling for where I am now, traditions starting up. Keeping only the old ones that still fit.
I am caregiving now in a totally different way…because I am caregiving for myself. Turns out, that was what I really needed all along in this next phase. YES, many of you told me that, multiple times. I wasn’t ignoring you, honest! But of course you all know by now that I never go towards any change without dragging my feet for a while first. One hand flailing for the next rung on the monkey bars, frustrated that I can’t reach it, while not realizing that all I need to do is let go of the last one to make it easier. That the rung I’m still clinging to is all that is holding me back. Finally having faith that all will not be lost when you just let it go; rather, that this is how you move forward instead of being stuck.
I’m learning how to turn some of the love I always poured out to those I loved most, back inward towards my own soul and its development. Yes, I am my own caregiver this year. I still love to give to others, but this year, I’m also taking the time to do what fills me up the most. First. My next role has finally become clear. It’s to care for me and nurture where I am to go next. As a person who has always put family and partner above all, this feels very strange (and still a little selfish). But I know that is the only way to let go of that old rung and swing forward.
Finally, I am seeing the light in the dark confusion of the past few years of adjustment. (See, Nana Sylvie, I was paying attention, it just took me a while to get here!) I’m not entirely sure when the switch got flipped, but I now “get” what this part of my journey is for. Wait, actually, I do. Sometime in the last year, after yet another disappointment in circumstances that didn’t feel good because I didn’t stay true to caring for myself first, I finally realized that I needed to just be where and who I was and let the rest fall where it will. That the people and circumstances I needed in my life would come to me easily once I recognized my worth and didn’t compromise that out of fear of being alone anymore. That my purpose now is for finally defining what I want, without the qualifier of “if it fits in with my family/partner’s needs”. More important, I’m realizing that doing this is not turning my back on anyone, and those who are meant to be in my circle will still support me in this. That truly, being alone wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to me; compromising who I was to avoid that was what was really damaging. I was ready to be alone instead of compromising myself. And to my great astonishment, that wasn’t what happened. Instead, the right people stayed on and the best one showed up, once I took that leap of faith to care for myself first.
And so, the caregiving changes. The holidays and their traditions change. Turns out, they always do as time passes no matter our circumstances. The heart of a caregiver never stops caring and giving, but the ways in which that goes out into the world might. And that this is all OK.
Merry Christmas to all. May peace and love and renewal find you all in some form, even if in small victories. To the many selfless caregivers I know, may you find some relief to help you through. May you remember that what you are doing is truly God’s work, Jesus’ work, and full of purpose even if some days (or even many) it seems to be more than you can do. He sees you; I see you. And if I can help you, I will. Because I have time for that now with old roles shed; and because I’ve finally cared for myself first, making me strong enough to take on whatever I choose to do, without fear and with a heart full of joy. If your mostly outward-focused caregiving days have ended like mine have, I hope that you find your next inner purpose too. Because caregiving is for life, it is part of the human condition; it is only where it is directed that may change. Rock on.
I’m a 64 year old aging hippie with a sarcastic tongue and out of control ginger hair. I am passionate in advocating for women “of a certain age”, especially we single ones, because we aren’t quite dead yet, in spite of the fact that we are often largely invisible and made to feel redundant on many levels. I hope to make you think, make you laugh, and mostly, feel like no matter where you are in life, you are never alone, and whatever dumb thing you think is going to sink you, won’t. Because heaven knows if that were true, I wouldn’t be here.