Changes in the day-to-day operation of our family have turned me into a true stay-at-home mom. The kind where I was the big pregnant mama dragging my toddler around everywhere this summer, and the kind where now the new baby is by my side for every hour of the day. I find the intensity of non-stop kid quite challenging, as I'm sure most caregivers do. I also learn a lot, which may sound odd, but since our family has grown, and the amount of day care that I use has shrunk, I am, more often than I was in the past, struck by the minutiae of the young lives for which I am responsible.
Spending significant quantities of time with children who have only limited communication capacity also leaves you alone inside your head a lot, so that's where I've been. The notion of 'caregiving' came into my mind during one particularly rough recent day...a day when I had to take a deep breath and really dig deep for some patience.
Thoughts about caregiving have resurfaced frequently since then. I have been reminded that the reality of my life at this point requires that I put my self aside, and put the needs of others first. Such a cliche, right? Except that culturally, we don't talk about that very much, at least not in ways that actually encourage doing it. It sounds dumb that I have had to reflect so intentionally about it, but on the other hand, taking care of people requires more than just meeting their basic needs of food, shelter and cleanliness, at least if you want to do a good job. It is one thing to be at home with your kids, but quite another to witness a three year old meltdown over something that seems minor, and then to stop and imagine how it feels to be three and to hear "no!" or "shhhh!" or "not like that!" more than anything else all day. I can choose to just be home with these boys, or I can try to think of something uncommon for us to do once and a while that will make it special for us. I can make dinner just to get it done, or I can cook it with intention, remaining mindful that every time I include vegetables, stay on budget, and adhere to our schedule, our household remains healthier and more effective.
Continuing to think about it led me to the conclusion that 'caregiver' is a word that has slipped into current usage that is meant to sound modern and non-gendered. Unfortunately, the result is that the meaning is masked and the effect is softened, which is too bad. This era in which we live right now values the 'self' so highly...we are invited to retain ourselves, celebrate ourselves, express ourselves, be ourselves. So much self. And I have enthusiastically absorbed this mantra for much of my adult life. However, I am noticing that celebrating the self makes it hard to be in a caregiving mindset. 'Caregiving' isn't a generic job title or a politically correct notion, as much as the result of a pile of moment-to-moment decisions we make in our interactions with those for whom we are responsible. It is a mindset, and always a work in progress.
Giving care often requires additional time. It is messy, laborious, repetitive and grueling. We are often called upon to give care when it is not convenient, and we sometimes need to dip into reserves of mental energy in order to remain present to those in our care. When a child is suddenly home sick, instead of at day care, it is not only inconvenient for you, it is likely something very uncomfortable for him. Thus a double effort is required: the one to tamp down the stress of taking an abrupt turn away from the day you thought you were going to have, and the another one to give your full love and attention to the person who needs it most. When a tiny baby is screaming and crabby it is for some reason sometimes hard to remember how sick or tired they feel...why do I have to catch his cold before I remember how terrible it feels to be sick?
We are so busy in our lives now that it is easy to forget how much difference giving care can make in the day of the person that needs it. I was reminded of this many times one recent day, when I spent the day entirely with my three month old and my three year old son. It is a new routine still for me to have both boys, and I am not yet confident in the rhythm of our days. Caring for the young baby has taken a lot of attention and effort away from the three year old, and we can all feel it. Three year olds are not easy and also my patience is already a little thin for the standard reasons: the baby, our move into a new house, and other normal personal matters. The three year old takes the hit much of the time. He appears so capable, especially when measured against the baby, that we ask much of him. We require independence, both for practical reasons and also because his father and I both believe in fostering it.
But he still doesn't know that his footsteps are loud or that doors opening and closing wake babies, or that grownups need quiet time, too. He knows what we tell him, but he doesn't feel it in his bones. He does know the disappointed look on my face when I'm not happy with something he has done. His unexpected, unsolicited and totally sincere apology one recent afternoon after waking the baby almost broke my heart, as it really highlighted how demanding I can be, and how I need to be mindful of the attention that his little heart requires even as he continues to look so grown up.
I have a lot to do right now, just like any responsible adult. And I'm not planning on giving up my personal goals or projects just because I have young children. However, I am planning to keep practicing patience, as much as I can muster each day. Caregiving has interfered many times in the writing of this post, which I had originally hoped to publish weeks ago, on Valentine's Day. I have at times responded graciously to those interruptions and at other times in ways that leave room for improvement. Care giving is beautiful that way...if we are lucky, we have many, many chances to get it right. This year I will be continuing to work hard in service of that goal.