It's real out here in these care work streets...
Some call us the sandwich generation, those of us who are in between navigating our own growing responsibilities and taking care of our elders. Sure, the metaphor makes sense. We’re sandwiched between two sets of responsibilities and obligations. But sandwiches in my mind are usually delicious. Whether it’s an old school pb&j or an ooey gooey grilled cheese, or a crispy, crunchy BLT, sandwiches are delicious. Scuttling between dropping your kids off, rushing to work, and caring for a parent or grandparent is not delicious. It may be necessary, gratifying, or even honorable, but it ain’t easy or fun for the most part.
Like Tita in Like Water for Chocolate, I was raised with the expectation that I would take care of my mother before anything else. Certainly, across various diasporas we see folks talking care of their elders in multigenerational households. Grandparents, great aunts, and uncles, together alongside their children and niblings and grandchildren working, loving, and living alongside one another. It makes sense. But for some of us—particularly women—the expectation is beyond familial duty; the expectation is that you’ll erase yourself in order serve another.
I am honored to be a caretaker, but over the years I’ve rejected the idea that care work means neglecting myself. Care work is just that—work. And I reject the notion that productivity—even in service of family—means that I shouldn’t take care of myself. That doesn’t mean it’s easy though. And here’s why, from the prospective of a childfree caretaker of an elder.
1. We out here raising our parents. These elders don’t listen! I know plenty of folks who have had to nip crazy schemes in the bud, remind parents that the pandemic is still real, or generally corral teenagers masquerading as elders. Pray for us—we are not ok!
2. They trying to raise us, again. I’m in my 40s. I’m grown. Not saying I don’t have a lot to learn, but I’m not a child either. Sometimes it’s hard not to fall into problematic power dynamics. I like to say while I am your child, I’m not a child. Respect goes both ways.
3. Some loss of independence—yours and theirs. My granny used to always say “once a man, twice a child.” Oftentimes we infantilize elders in ways that robs them of their autonomy. On the other hand, caretaking expectations can seriously impact a caretaker’s mental, physical, and financial health. Illness, economics, and a whole bunch of other factors means that folks don’t get to do exactly what they want to do. When my mama got sick, she went from living alone to living with me. We get along well but the transition to cohabitating has definitely had its bumps and we’ve both had to adjust. That means recalibrating our relationship dynamics—which is an ongoing process.
I do not have the answer to all these issues, but I do have a set of strategies that I use to maneuver this life.
1. Boundaries. I don’t let anyone—and I do mean anyone—talk to me any kind of way. I retain the right to have a life. I have dealbreakers on how I navigate my life. I also have to respect that my mother has particular boundaries around her life. It’s a give and take.
2. Leaning into mutual aid—community is so important. I know the pandemic has put so many strains on us. But it has also illuminated our need for one another in key ways. From emotional support to literally checking in on my mother when I’ve traveled, I’ve been blessed with (i.e. spent years cultivating) a reciprocal community outside of my family of origin that enables my caregiving.
3. Self-care—it’s not a cure for burnout or more equitable social structures but it’s something. I have a few chronic illnesses myself and I try to take great care in taking my meds, getting in movement, keeping my own doctor’s appointments, going to therapy regularly, and meditating daily, alongside getting the occasional massage and other things that allow me to woosah.
4. Realizing that you will have to make tough choices—and make peace with that. Sometimes you have to make executive decisions that are difficult. You might have to make choices that cramp your style. Adulthood is for birds, but it is what it is.
5. Give yourself grace. You’re doing your best. Really.