Daily Reflections: Week 2
What does it mean to your identity to be a carer?
Day One: What did you learn about caring in your family of origin?
Most of us learnt the basics of caring at our mother's breast and our father's knee. Much of that was probably good or good enough but some was probably not so helpful or downright harmful depending on how healthy and happy our childhood's were. As well as the events of our particular childhood are the stories of our families back through the generations and our ethnic and religious culture.
Time for another sheet of paper. Draw a diagram of your family of origin. Basically who lived under your roof so it may include grandparents or other people. Begin with your parents or adult carers. Then note the various caring roles you observed. Was it your mother who fed you, cooked, cleaned, nurtured? Did she do it with pleasure or did she convey weariness or annoyance? Ws she "missing in action" due to illness or death or too many other children or addiction or ... all the other things that can diminish someone's ability to care fully and attentively. Did others also help care for you? And as you got older what caring roles were required of you and what recognition or reward was there in those roles? Many of us will have had formal jobs as children that may or may not have been linked to rewards such as pocket money or treats. But there are often other roles such as watching younger siblings or elderly relatives, soothing or reasurring a parent with mental health or addiction issues, or a myriad other unamed roles that were thrust upon us.
Most of us learn both healthy helpful caring skills and philosophies in our family - and some not so healthy ones. It is important to our own wellbeing and mature self development that we can discern the healthy from the not so healthy, that we choose what of our inheritance to take forward and what to discard or reject. As someone wise once said the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.
Which of the caring roles that you learnt in your family do you most fully and gladly embrace? My mother was killed instantly in a car accident when I was 44. I was in my first year of training as a preist and I was the single parent of three teenagers. Something about her death gave me a second wind as a parent, it was as though she bequested me her gentle patient never give up on your kids approach that I leaned deeply into in those very demanding years. When my vocational identity was changing as i gave up being a social worker and became a preist I leant into my mothers conventional and very caring parenting excample when i might otherwise have neglected the less pleasant aspects of parenting teernagers.
And what relationship and moments of being cared for in your family continues to nurture and support you? I was doing some work as client with a trauma counsellor who uses a somatic or body focused approach to understanding our trauma and healing from it. One of the first suggestions she made was to imagine or remember someone lovingly touching my face in a calming and soothing way. For a moment I struggled and then I remembered that not long before my mother was killed I had called into visit one evening and she had, like all good mothers, invited me to stay for tea. She topped up the ingredients in the pressure cooker and we sat down to wait. I was very tired and she invited me to lay down on the couch while the evening news was on. I did and placed my head in her lap and with my eyes closed she stroked my temples. Even though she is long gone now, all I have to do is close my eyes and I can feel again the comfort and recentring calm of her touch. In stressful times I often conjur up the comfort of that moment. What are the moments and relationships that can bring you comfort or re-energise you?
Relish all that was positive and healthy and life giving. And know that with intention and work (sometimes a lot of work!) you can choose to leave what has not served you well behind.
What we learnt in our families of orogin informs how we care for others. It can also inform how we care for ourselves. When my mother cared for me as an adult she taught me about how to care. When I intentionally recall that memory and play it to myself when I am in need of comfort or encouragment I am self-caring because I am using wht I learnt about caring to take care of myself.
What things that you learnt about caring are you generous and wise enough to give to yourself?
Day Two: What did you learn about caring from your culture?
For many of us there is a huge overlap between our family values and norms and those of the general community. But if we were raised in an ethnic minority or a very political or religious family we may have had differing expectations conveyed to us between home and the general community. It is neither good nor bad just something to be aware of.
As we are no doubt aware many of us who are women have certain expectations of us by others (and by ourselves) about taking up certain caring roles in the family. We are expected to provide nurturing to almost anyone who needs it. Men are traditionaly expected to provide care through protection, provision of material needs, discipline. In the last two plus generations these cultural expectations have shifted and rather than freeing us in some ways we are now all expected to be and do everything. As a single parent for much of my children's lives I was very aware of needing to be all the traditonal maternal caring roles and to be a good financial provider, disciplinarian, academic tutor etc etc.
So take pen and more paper and draw or write some of those expectations and understandings. You might want to have fun and see how many advertising jingles you can think of and notice the assumptions they make about what caring roles you should be fulfilling. You may want to remember some of the best and worst sit-coms and the expectations they conveyed about caring roles. And of course our favourite novels - our heros and heroines. I used to love reading nursing books when I was young and always thought I would be a nurse. In reality it is my two sisters who have carried on the family tradition of nursing but I did work in hospitals for twenty years.
Of course culture does not present a single uncontested description of what being a carer looks like or what it means to the one who is caring. Popular culture often conveys ways in which we should be cared for by others - doors opened for us, neighbours turning up to help in times of catastrophy, gifts of flowers and chocolates as comfort and congratulations, foot massages by intimate friends ... These can all be wonderful. But novels, movies, songs, less often describe ways in which we can take care of ourselves. Occassionally we may see an overworked woman run a scented bath and put some music on while relaxing. But more often self care takes the form of self comfort in destructive ways such as drinking alcohol or eating entire tubs of icecream. Often self care is portrayed as selfishness or an embarrassing acknowledgement that we don't have anyone to do it for us!
Think of at least three ways of self caring that you do or intend to do that you have not seen or heard much of in popular culture.
Day Three: What did you learn about caring from your Profession?
Most professions have quite explicit value statements that will include some statements about how we take care of our clients or customers, our organisation, our colleagues and how we can expect to be taken care of by our employing organisation. Some professions are more overtly about caring than others of course.
I would encourage you to not only include in this section what you do to earn an income but you might also include roles you unertake as a volunteer such as ambulance worker or country fire fighter, or parish visitor or little league coach for your children's sporting club. You probably received some training and there would have been some explicit teaching about caring for others and being cared for. However there will also be a lot of information in the culture of the organisation which will be conveyed to you.
Write down those messages you were given directly about how to care for others and of the value of caring for others.
For example as a social worker I deeply took on board the ethic of "client self determination" which at various times in my life has been in creative tension with my parenting instincts or my teachning role in the church.
Did your vocation - career or volunteer - explicitly teach about caring for your self? What and how? For example as a social worker I was taught to seek professional supervision which was primarily about accountability but good supervision was also about self care. I certainly emphasised it in my years as a supervisor of others.
It you were to be your own best supervisor/mentor/coach what self care strategies would you applaud yourself for undertaking? And what additional self care activities and attitudes would you encourage yourself in?
Day Four: What did you learn about caring from your Faith Community?
As you may already have begun to suspect if not be absolutely convinced of not everything we were "taught" by the church or any faith community is core to the actual faith belief system. For those of us who were women were often taught that sacrifice, niceness, putting others needs before our own etc were the essence of Christianity. And while undoubtably the core message of Christianity is that of love niceness is certainly not highly valued in most of Scripture and there are a variety of ways of loving that are modeled including some that
We have the story of Mary and Martha to remind us that sometimes the caring serving everyone else first behaviour of Mary is not necessarily the most desirable. Indeed the apparently self caring behaviour of Martha seeking to listen to the Teacher is the more desirable behaviour.
Day Five: How does your Personality Type influence you as a Carer?
Let's face it some of us are carers by nature (as well as by nurture, circumstance and training).
If you have been in therapy for a long time or are a therapist you probably have a very theoretical and detailed understanding of why you are the way you are. Hopefully those self descriptions not only explain why you are a carer but have some wise input into how to self care.
For the rest of us there are some simple models that have some value in both explaining the way we are but also what we might do to become more balanced and how we might self care.
Many of us in church circles will have undertaken the Eneogram training at some point. For a while there many went around saying: "Well I am a two or a seven or a six" as though that explained everything. Like any other pyschological tools Enneagram wisdom only helps to the extent that you want it to. Information about your peronality type according to this tool can be useful when followed up with related wisdom about the strengths and weaknesses of your type. I found the writings of Don Richard Riso with Russ Hudson "Personality Types: using the Enneagram for Self Discovery" very helpful. (There is also some free on-line material such as the abridged version of the Riso questionnaire at www.9types.com/rheti/index.php ) Having discovered that I was a Two or The Helper was only confirming of what I knew. But the follow up chapter that described the healthy expressions of "twoness" and the unhealthy expressions was what really helped me with self care because it helped me know pre emptively what I needed. For example two's will help until they are exhausted and then suddenly snap and become very resentful that their helpfulness is not appreciated. So as a two it is important to get regular rest and replenishment to prevent exhaustion and the gathering storm of resentment and self pity!!
If you think that your caring for others is compulsive or frequently leads you into unhealthy and overly demanding relationships including your own personal relationships you might want to explore the topic of Codepency. A good on-line course (when you finish this one!) is Fom Codependent to Independent by Mary Joyce through dailyom.com
Once again I would encourage you to do this sort of personal work, which has the potential to take you deep, in the company of a professional counsellor or spiritual director so that any issues that get stirred up can be held in such a way that the experience will lead to growth rather than insecurity or self doubt. Remember that whatever you discover about yourself has probably been the truth, or a part of it, for a long time and unless you are in imminent danger of physical harm there is no need to make sudden decisions.
Indeed much of this self discovery can be fun.
Day Six: Review what you have been taught and discovered about Caring and Self Caring.
Read back through this weeks reflections of your own. write a list of all the skills, attitudes and values you have been taught about caring for others in one column. Then write another list of all the skills, attitudes and values you have been taught about caring for your self. Is one list longer than the other? If the self care list is shorter then go back to your first list and rephrase the items as self caring. For example "clients/people have the right to self determination" becomes "I have the right to determine for myself ..." Or "Children must be listened to and their explicit permission must be gained before ..." could become "I must be listened to and my explicit permission must be given before I allow .... to happen."
Which of these statements is the most attractive or fascinating? What freedom, energy, comfort, pleasure might be yours if you cared for yourself in this way?