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The Impossible Standard of Being a Parent-Carer

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Yesterday I put my back out — again. It had been a long six months of relentless emotional battles, family trauma, paperwork and fighting for my son’s needs to be met by professionals. I knew I was struggling, but I kept going anyway. Until my back felt like it had snapped in two and my body decided enough was enough. I couldn’t physically move.

I lay in bed wondering how on earth I had reached this point again. How? Had I not learnt the need for self-care last time this happened? Of course I had. Only I had chosen to ignore it. This thought perplexed me somewhat. Why had I subconsciously over ridden the warnings to slow down? I’m an intelligent person, I knew the warnings were real. They were like bright flashing neon signs in front of my eyes. Yet instead of taking the next exit available, I drove straight off a cliff. Again.

I started thinking about my own mother and whether she had done the same. Do I remember her taking time off for herself? Or do I remember a woman rushing from pillar to post, pleasing everyone she came across because that was her measure of success in this world.

I believe our parents and grandparents grew up in a world where women tolerated a pattern of self neglect. Its was normal behaviour and therefore just expected. Cultures all over the world held beliefs that the role of a woman was to nurture their families without needing any care in return.

In my view, to treat women as though they do not need self-care or compassion is sexist, yet hugely normalised. It’s built into our entertainment and advertising. As near as only 50 years ago, advertising showed bright happy pictures of women multitasking with housework, baby in tow and pets running around their feet. As though it made them happy. You should be happy in that scenario. If you aren’t, there is something wrong with you. Not the position you find yourself in.

It’s a message with which we are suffocated daily. But from who? In some relationships it may come from your partner, but not in mine. My husband is constantly reminding me to put my own needs first, to rest or to immerse myself in a hobby. In my family, the only person that I receive pressure from is me.

I tried to work out why that was. Remembering that I wasn’t just a parent, but a parent-carer, I started wondering if people understood just exactly what and how much I do in my role. Do people realise the significance of the tiny (seemingly insignificant) jobs I do? Do they know of the catastrophic consequences that may happen if I dont complete those jobs?

Ask yourself how often you have heard the words “leave that, it doesn’t matter” or someone questions, “why are you doing that?”

This is the start of others blaming us for our own downfall. We have overworked ourselves on purpose by doing silly things that just don’t matter. Only they do. In other people’s eyes, the job of rearranging Legos all over the floor in the exact mess it was before is a ridiculous waste of time. I know it isn’t.

It’s one thing for us as female parent-carers to take on the role of meeting everyone else’s needs, to become the mother figure and live according to impossible standards. But then to add to that the role of a carer (attending appointments, administering medication, doing physio, attending therapies and all on no sleep) doesn’t just push the boundaries of human capabilities, it smashes right through them. (The same can be said for working mums here but for now I’m just looking at parent-carers, many of whom also work).

We need to take responsibility for changing the example we set our children. We live in a time of feminine uprising. These assumed roles of unlimited caring for others must change. It needs to become common practice for parent-carers to say, “enough,” without the ingrained guilt of neglect and failure strangling our souls.

Ask yourself what your purpose is. Why do you exist? You exist because someone else made you. What do you want for your children? For them to be happy. At some point in your life (hopefully) someone else desperately wanted you to be happy, and in doing everything they could to make that happen, they may have accidentally doomed you into an adult lifetime of stress. Yes your childhood may have been happy and carefree, but life is only 20 percent childhood. Would you have minded if your mum had said no to driving you somewhere because she was tired and taking a break? OK probably yes, you would have kicked off. But is that not part of learning the boundaries of life? You learn boundaries for plenty of other behaviours. Bad language, missed homework, fighting with your siblings. But do you ever learn about the boundaries of rest?

So many children nowadays are pushed from school to club, from achievement to achievement. We are already taking away their ability to learn to rest at school age. What chance do they have as parents? Believe me, you won’t have that level of energy forever!

The one phrase I remember my mum saying as a clear as day was, “its 9 o’clock and I haven’t sat down yet.” My mum not having a free evening was normalized. Through pressure from my dad? No. From the pressure that came from her own internal standards. But I’m not just a parent. I’m a parent-carer. I can’t meet the impossible standards I was exposed to as a child. That’s where the guilt comes in. I have failed.

Only I haven’t. And neither have you. We can change these standards. We can teach our daughters that you only fail if you don’t look after yourself. It maybe too late for us (the habit is already ingrained), but not for them.

We can change the message, we can change the habits and erase that guilt. We must stop trying to meet a standard that just isn’t possible. But most importantly, we must teach our children to do the same.

Originally published: May 5, 2019
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