I have been the family caretaker for as long as I can remember. I am the nurturer, the multi-tasker, the one who makes everyone else’s world go round. I have had to be responsible for other people and other people’s property since I was in the second grade or so. I was raised to be a caretaker by a selfish mother. I was trained to be the responsible one, the one entrusted with our family’s most precious things.
It’s a characteristic that has been a blessing and a curse in my life.
I had to care for my siblings while my mom went to work, and I was the all-night babysitter as she went out in search of her next husband. I was far too young to have had the burden of being so responsible. I never had a childhood. I was always given adult responsibilities by my parents.
I cared for my first husband’s nieces and nephews, I was fresh out of foster care and happy to be a part of a family unit, until the family began abusing their care-taking privileges. I was 17–18-year-old, far too young to be bound to 3 young children that I did bear. Especially after having the responsibility of caring for my own two siblings at such an early age.
I had my first kid at 18 years old, and my second one by the age of 20. My next 22 years or so would be spent ensuring my kids were not statistics, burdens to society, or not cared for.
My care-taking journey throughout life continued.
After my first husband went to prison for the next 25-years, I was left alone to care for my children. I did what I had to do. I worked two jobs, walked to work when my car broke down. My small kids and I would walk to the grocery store when I had to choose between groceries, bills and paying for a ride. I went to college, while ensuring they got plenty of time to be kids. I was going to not punish my kids with adult responsibilities, like I had been a decade earlier.
Life eventually got better, easier. But the responsibilities never decreased.
Somehow, people kept turning up at my home and in my life like stray cats. I must have exuded responsibility, strength, compassion, and love.
I fed hungry, neglected children in my community. Justly.
As I dated, I cared for the men in my life like only a Southern belle can. It was a quality most men desire in a mate, whether they’ll admit it or not. A mate or spouse who serves is a catch to them. It seems a caretaker is a catch until he/she isn’t needed anymore.
But the business of care-taking must go on. I was unapologetically a bottomless pit of caring. There was no time to get caught up in my own needs.
The needs of others came first. They always did.
Nearly fifteen years later, I fell in love with and married a man who fell in love with my care-taking characteristics, and my multi-tasking capabilities. I was going to be a fine addition to a blended family, and my ex was going to be a fine addition to my family.
Over the span of our thirteen-year relationship and ten-year marriage, I not only cared for my own blended family’s needs, but I cared for other extended family members and children in need.
Just like clockwork, there were more people in need of care. My children met kids from a local orphanage in middle school. They insisted we become a surrogate family. My ex-husband and I became the extended family of these young teens taking them in on weekends and advocating on their behalf through those tough teen years. We helped them into adulthood.
I gained two more sons.
Next, my baby sister and her husband needed my services. They both were active duty Marine and Air-Force, long-timers. I was the legal guardian for their young children as they fought for America abroad on more than one occasion. I cared for her children in my home with all my other care-taking responsibilities for two six-month stints, enrolling their children into school, catering to their needs while comforting their very young kids who knew far too much about sacrifice.
I cared for my step-daughter’s children when her own mother would not. She was in the Army, a single mom in need of family supports as she served her country. I gladly sacrificed my time to ensure my family had what it needed to keep going, even when it wasn’t convenient. Even in the face of my step-daughter’s disrespect, and her step-father’s tolerance of it. It’s what military families do.
I did the right thing. I was a caretaker, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. Care-taking is a selfless job. A tiring job. A thankless job. And a lonely job. Let it never be said I wasn’t there.
I knew what it was like to be abandoned. No one would ever experience that feeling. Not on my watch!
I cared for my husband, the way God would have me to. In the end after 13 years, it was never good enough. He was a bean counter. He valued money. He cared about status and connections. Those were things a good caretaker can never compete with.
My care-taking eventually did our marriage in. The care-taking qualities that were so sought after during our courtship were suddenly undesirable, unnecessary, and nothing noteworthy. Our values were different. We divorced, and like most caretakers, you leave with the short end of the stick.
No one can ever assign a dollar value to the time, love, work, dedication, and compassion given to develop healthy, whole people. Some people don’t get it. Shame on them.
After everyone got what they needed, the steadfast caretaker was so easily discarded. Unceremoniously.
And what do I have to show for all the years I sacrificed to help everyone get where they needed to be in life?
Memories…not much more.
My care-taking time has come and gone. People have grown up and gone off into the world to become the people God intended them to be. My ex-husband was able to pursue his career dreams, buy his play toys, add to his retirement, and have the quality of life he believed he deserved. The kind of quality of life he worked hard outside of the home to achieve.
I’m happy for them all. But I’m also a little bitter for me.
I gave too much. I sacrificed too much for others. I didn’t take enough time for me. I didn’t save enough. Invested in others more than I invested in myself. I worked too hard in ways that didn’t benefit me. I forget myself. I always put myself last.
Now, it’s time for me to start living. I’m probably half-way to dying. It’s so late in the game for me to be giving a damn. Why didn’t I get this earlier? No one talks about this when the gloat and glorify marriage and child-rearing!
I often look back at my life now, and I see success.
I see a trail of successful people who have gone on about the business of living. I see college graduates. Military officers. Retired veterans. Honor students. Productive Citizens. Bankers, managers, a biologist.
When I look in the mirror, I see a person who gave until it hurts. I see woman how could have been more and could have done more. I see mediocrity, a person who did not live up to their full-potential.
I feel forgotten. Neglected. Put out to pasture like an old iPhone traded up for the latest, greatest shiny new thing. I wonder if other caregivers feel like this.
I gave, because it was the right thing to do. I didn’t do it expecting anything in return. I never thought giving in such ways could cause a tinge of resentment and deep regret, but it has. This worries me.
As I grow old, I wonder who will care for me. Today, people are so selfish. Our adult children are very selfish. They have this “me, me, me” attitude. Kids think parents are just supposed to give endlessly, as if we are a never-ending fountain of everything kids need for their lives until they die.
If you had a selfless caretaker coming up, how do you show them your gratitude? Do you even remember to do so? Is it just limited to commercial holidays? If so, that’s shitty!
Are you a caretaker still caring for your husband/spouse/significant other, children, extended family, parents, etc., and you’re not doing much for yourself?
Stop it this very moment.
Caregivers, you must take time out for yourself. You must have your own income. You must separate your own life. You must have your own hobbies. You must think about your future. You must cultivate your own meaningful relationships that are personal and important to you and only you. Take care of your own health. Get out. Make new friends. Eat right. Exercise. Socialize.
It’s time right now to start caring for yourselves. Rarely if ever will you get back the level of care you gave.
The day shall come when your services are no longer needed, with no fanfare either. You’ll be alone. This may come through a spouse telling you that you no longer add value to their lives and the marriage, or it could simply come via an empty nest. It could come through an untimely death of a child or significant other. No matter the scenario, the thing you can count on is that the day will come.
What will you do when the caretaker needs care? Do you know who will care for you? Will anyone be there? People and relationships change like the wind, and real life can happen to the best of us.
Caretakers should make their own lives, and do a better job of caring for themselves, especially women. Plan for a future which may exclude some of the very people you tirelessly cared for.
What will you see when you look back over your life? How will you feel about the seeds you have sown? Will you have the emotional, physical, and financial support you need to make it through your golden years.
Life isn’t fair. Neither is care-taking.
Marley K., 2018