We’ve all heard it:
“…and if you are traveling with small children, please be sure to firmly secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”
All pre-flight instructions are important, but none are quite as profound as this one.
I grew up in an environment that basically instilled a belief that if you hire a babysitter to go out for an evening with your spouse, this was somehow deemed as selfish. Babysitters were for laaaazy parents. Or, if you had a hobby that didn’t include everyone in the family, you just didn’t get to have a hobby.
The message was: Kids come first, you and/or your spouse come last.
I am here to tell you, and after learning the hard way when my marriage ended, that putting your kids above everything else will bring you nothing but disaster. There is nothing heroic about it.
So with time and healing, and with a total mental shift to realize that relationships are fragile…I am proud to say I got my marriage back (to my ex husband, no less!) and the kids are even better for it.
Over the last few years, and particularly since I became a full-time caretaker for my disabled husband, I’ve had to relearn that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. It’s been incredibly hard for me to shake this ingrained belief that everyone else should come first while you should sacrifice your own self in the process. Being selfless means that sometimes you have to be selfish by other people’s standards.
What a conundrum of internal conflict this has created!
Now, combine this issue with being thrust in the public eye and spotlight, where people come to you to compliment you for your stoic abilities and strength. This is when another internal conflict surfaces. We, as caretakers, are EXPECTED to be strong, selfless, and inspirational.
Sometimes, though, we just want to fall apart and cry.
And, sadly, that’s not allowed by other people’s standards.
I have recently been doing something unusual, even for me. I have been allowing myself to ask for help from others. I felt guilty about it to some degree, so I confided in this feeling of not deserving what I asked for to someone in a position to give me their honest opinion. All I have to say is God bless Meredith.
I was reminded of a story about the instructions for using oxygen masks on an airplane. You are told in both words and pictures to put your oxygen mask on before you reach to give one to a child. Why in the world would we do that? Because you are no good to the child if you haven’t supplied your own oxygen first.
One of the things I recently asked for from others was a character reference from anyone who was interested in giving a testimonial about what impact we’ve had on them. whether personally, professionally, directly or residually. I really didn’t make a big production out of asking, as I was a bit bashful about it to begin with. Much to my surprise, someone responded almost immediately.
After reading this well-thought-out letter of recommendation from someone in my community, I didn’t feel a sense that it was gratuitous. In fact, I felt the words to be sincere and honest.
And that made me cry.
I am not used to hearing compliments like that. When I do receive compliments, it’s usually because someone is trying to express how strong I appear to be, or how inspirational I have been, or how they look up to me with a higher standard. They mean well, and trust me I don’t deny that hearing it does help, but sometimes that doesn’t give me permission to be weak or have a moment of visible pain.
This letter gave me permission to cry. And I did …but this time in a good way.
Tonight I engaged in a topic of discussion about the new Caregiver Benefit that was woefully delayed after it was signed into law last year. By the President’s side, and watching with pride in this incredible measure of support for caregivers, was Sarah and Ted Wade. Ted was severely injured in Iraq, and Sarah is his wife and caretaker. I have had the pleasure of knowing them both, though it has been too long since we’ve last crossed paths. They are good people, and Sarah is truly deserving of this benefit.
Due to delays and added restrictions in the Caregiver Bill, it doesn’t look like Sarah will be getting any benefits after all. No one is really sure at this point as to who gets what. But there are plenty of wives who have decided who SHOULD get what.
This topic of discussion was among a group of caretakers, all with varying levels of care that they provide. Much to my surprise, I took away a feeling that I never should have felt because it was coming from some of the wives in this group. I was told in not so many words that asking for this benefit was selfish, and a true caretaker is one who will do this with no support or compensation. To drive the point in further, one caretaker alluded that if we weren’t in the highest criteria for providing care, we’d be stripping the benefit away from those who it was “meant for” – namely those who require nursing home care.
Excuse me, but it was meant for people like Sarah. And possibly me.
Just when I was making such great progress in learning to ask for what I need, I get knocked down again. The fact is, I’ve more than earned it. At this point I am beginning to think that there are too many people with too many standards.
Since the time my husband was injured, which is now going on seven years, I have been repeatedly and categorically dismissed by the Department of Defense and the VA. I have given up my job, my income, my career, my freedom, my identity, my friends, and even my family to be the caretaker of my husband. I will insist in stating for the record that my husband is not a burden. I do this because I love him. I am not a victim. He is rated by the VA as housebound due to his Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) combined with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is a rare day that I am able to leave the house. That’s not whining. That’s REALITY.
I have been treated like a second-class citizen by the very institutions that recieve free labor on my behalf. Without me, the government would have to pay outside skilled labor to manage his care. Consider me to be the VA’s cheap date.
And it’s not just the VA that has spent nearly over 2/3rds of a decade in dismissing my role. Before that I was told that if the Army wanted my husband to have a wife, they would have issued him one.
Yeah, they said that.
Let’s be real for a minute. If I stepped into this role for a paycheck, I wouldn’t be here today. While the stipend will be nice, there comes a time when a little appreciation would go a long way. What I’m asking for is a fraction of their support services so I can do my job better. I just want a little oxygen.
I’ve tried to dismiss comments made by caregivers who are also in my shoes that I should be thankful my husband is alive. I have also tried to dismiss comments by caregivers in my shoes that my asking for outside help, let alone expecting it, is selfish of me to do.
Those comments are cruel. They hurt. And this time they ended up making me cry.
Yes, you heard me correctly: I cried more in one day than I have in the last six months. Some good, some bad, but all of it was exhausting. Give me chocolate, or something, but for those who know me… this is an anomaly.
I realize that crying happens and it’s okay. What’s not okay is hearing how selfish I am to ask for help, particularly from the very people who need to put their own oxygen masks on.
There’s nothing heroic about having your life, your sanity or your marriage falling apart because you had to put up an image of being strong or selfless.
So let’s review our safety card together, shall we? It’s okay to cry. It’s also okay to ask for help.
But it’s NOT okay to purposely dismiss or insult someone because they admitted they need help, or have a sense of need for their own selves.