Ever since my mom’s stroke, people have been telling me to remember to take care of myself. These people mean well. They are often very somber and earnest in admonishing me to take care of myself. It is as if they believe they can will their words to permeate my brain and convert into action. They never quite do.
I realize, on some intellectual level, that self-care is important. I don’t think I fully accept that it is important to me, however. After all, it isn’t like my mother is living with me and I am the full-time caretaker. Lots of people handle much heavier burdens than I do. Somehow, “just” managing my mother’s life, being her advocate, and visiting a couple of hours a day six days a week doesn’t feel like enough to entitle me to the concern of those well-meaning people. It doesn’t feel like I deserve the “permission” to take care of myself.
I remember reading the book The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prairie fame) when I was younger. The premise of the book is that the residents of a small town in the Dakota Territory were running out of wheat to make bread during the particularly cold, blizzardy, and brutal winter of 1880-1881. Most of the citizenry, regardless of how they earned money, raised their own food. Some people were actually commercial farmers, but even those who weren’t had chickens for eggs, a cow for milk, and fields of vegetables. And wheat. They grew wheat for home consumption. They stockpiled stores of the grain to make sure they would have flour during the lean times of the year when game was scarce and the ground was too hard and barren to yield crops. They were hardy, forward-thinking pioneer people who knew how to eke a living off the land. They were used to living in harsh elements. That long winter demonstrated that, sometimes, the elements win.
As the wheat supplies dwindled and winter showed no sign of abating, townspeople started approaching starvation. Because the weather was so violent, it seemed foolhardy to travel to a larger town in hope of finding emergency grain. People were rationing and doing without, but it became clear that the town was not going to survive until spring without some infusion of food. A rumor started that the Wilder brothers still had a store of seed wheat that they intended to use to plant the next season’s crop. One man in town approached them, begging them to share just a little of the seed wheat to keep his family from starving to death. The Wilder brothers agreed, but could see that this was, at best, a stopgap measure. Giving up their seed wheat would only stave off the famine in the town for a week or two. It would also mean that there would be no wheat at all to plant for the next season. Ultimately, the brothers decided to brave the wicked whiteness to find wheat for sale. After a long, uncomfortable, and perilous trip, they found someone with wheat and brought back enough to see the town through until spring.
I think this story is a good metaphor for caretaking, even if one is “only” providing care for a loved one living in a nursing facility. Caretaking does mean meeting the hour-to-hour physical needs of a loved one. It also means some other things. It means managing the administration of her life. It means being her advocate to campaign for her wishes. It means listening and concentrating and trying to interpret when she attempts to communicate. It means keeping her company. It means trying different strategies to keep her engaged and connected. It means being her proof that she has been-and still is- valuable and loved. It means showing her that she, herself, is still able to love.
All these forms of caretaking involve stress. They all require energy and emotional food. All caretakers are susceptible to emotional famine. It may feel safer to try to just ride out the difficult season, rationing your emotional reserves and hoping you make it to spring. It may feel dangerous and impossible to remove oneself from the immediate situation to look for the food that might be the longer-term solution to the problem. After all, if I give my all and do nothing but my best all the time, all I am left with is nothing. And nothing won’t yield any wheat in the next season.
What do those of you who are caregivers do to replenish your supplies when your “winter wheat” is diminishing? Please respond by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a nourishing day!