We hear it. Others believe they are giving us a compliment when they remind us of how “special” we are because we are caregivers. Beyond the comments of appreciation and disbelief—“How do you do it?”—others’ reactions to our care can’t help but make us feel different. Are we really that special? Are we really that unusual? Is it strange that we are caring for someone we love in their time of need?
What is it about caregiving in modern life that makes this role so unusual, so mysterious, so needed and yet, so marginalized?
It’s Difficult to Care for People Who Have Beliefs — Wouldn’t it sound odd to ask parents of a newborn, “How do you do it?” “Why do you do it?” Unlike parents of newborns, caregivers typically care for people who have beliefs. People who have said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ throughout their lives—making the care role seemingly more challenging because we find ourselves caring not simply for a body of an innocent and promising young child, but for a body full of ideologies and agendas and choices and regrets and mistakes and confusions. Caring for an adult human being means caring for another in spite of relationship conflicts, in light of political disagreements, and even when knowing that the person we care for is not perfect.
Others can’t help but marvel at our willingness to care despite everything the person in front of us represents or symbolizes.
Care isn’t simply about the endless tasks of caring for a loved one’s body—it’s about a willingness to overcome the differences that keep us separate and apart and distrustful when our bodies are healthy.
Unlike others who are mystified by what we do, our care is viewed as a radical act of heresy because it means we are willing to care alongside our fears, hesitations, and disagreements.
There’s More to Relationships than ROI (Return On Investment) — Throughout our lives, most relationships are based on an unstated arrangement—we engage others when we gain something from being with or near them. We receive something from someone and we provide something for another, making it possible to justify our time and energy and attention and physical presence. This type of reciprocal exchange makes so much sense when relationships are perceived as equal—“I’m giving as much as I’m getting and I’m getting as much as I’m giving.”
When it comes to caregiver relationships, everything is turned upside down. Caregivers rupture the unquestioned assumption that we should only engage in relationships in which we gain as much as we give.
“Let me get this straight—you care, day after day, and you get what in return?”
Your care, your willingness to be with another without the assurance that you will gain advancement, fame, money, solace, comfort, or fulfillment—can’t help but make others uncomfortable because it defies the expectations we bring to almost every other type of relationship. Your ongoing care means you must know or understand something about human connection that makes others question everything they believed to be true about relationships that matter.
You Can Be With Someone Without Trying to Change Them — Throughout adulthood, culture celebrates an ongoing intolerance for acceptance. Never settle. Never accept. Never stop. Never stop wanting. Never stop trying. Never stop desiring. Never stop persuading. Never stop wanting something more than what is before us.
Others preoccupy themselves with changing the person in front of them—“More of this,” “Less of that,” “You need to do this,” “You can’t do that.” This is called care and love in most other relationships, but this way of engaging another is built on the belief that care means focusing on who we want (and need) the people we care about to become.
Caring for people who are ill and not getting better requires something of us that others find hard to imagine: a greater tolerance for acceptance. Even though we have a higher tolerance for acceptance when caring for our loved ones—it doesn’t mean we settle. No, we simply see differently. We are open to noticing the person in front of us without the distorted lens of what could be. We realize that when we drop our obsession with seeing what isn’t—rather than what is—something emerges that is missed by most others. We try to care for another without obsessing about the future. We seek to care without focusing only on what is missing.
When we care through a frame of acceptance—rather than change—we allow our attention to be directed at the realities before us, rather than the endless possibilities of what might be, and what could be, and what should be, and what may never be.
The next time someone compliments you on how special and different you are for caregiving, it’s great to appreciate their comment. But remember, it’s not just the fact that we care for another that makes us different, it’s that we are engaging in a way of being and valuing another that defies what others know to be true—or even possible.