As I stack dirty dishes and pile papers on the table, I notice Mom's tiny, blue handwriting scrawled across a sticky note, reminding herself of an upcoming MRI. I wipe away a tear and glance over at her.
Her head is bowed as though praying as she sits in her blue chair, which is surrounded by plants and overlooks the pond. She has grade 2 astrocytoma, a brain tumor. The doctors don't know how long she has, and so I water her plants, change her diapers, cook her supper, and kiss her goodnight.
My son sits in his Bumbo watching me and watching his grandmother's head bob to the music on the stereo. Soon I'll hook her arms around my neck and we'll dance our way to the bathroom, her in her stretchy blue pants and me in my black leggings. My son will gurgle and I'll beg God for the strength to keep caring for those I love.
A woman's love is endless, but her energy is not. It's easy to want to care for others, while forgetting that we, ourselves, have needs. There are days when I crumble into my husband's arms and weep, and he kisses my hair and reminds me I am only human, something every woman needs to be reminded of. Otherwise, we tend toward a messiah-complex—the belief that we can save the world if we try hard enough.
This crumbling has taught me humility. It's taught me to pray. And it's taught me the secret to staying strong when others are weak.
A recent poll by AARP revealed that approximately 34 million Americans serve as unpaid caregivers. Four to five million care for parents with long-term health problems. "Caregivers report having one or more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, at nearly twice the rate of all Americans," Mindy Fetterman of USA Today writes in "Becoming 'Parent of Your Parent' an Emotionally Wrenching Process." "Of those who say their health has worsened because of caregiving, 91 percent report depression."
Burnout is extremely common among familial caregivers—the majority of whom are women, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving—because of the guilt that accompanies the role.
That is true in my case. Mom and I suffered a strained relationship while I was growing up. As a result, I spent hours trying to make up for those years—trying to fold enough laundry or water enough plants or bake enough cookies to compensate for the way I'd hurt her—but this only led to exhaustion.
Suzanne Mintz, cofounder and president of the National Family Caregivers Association, likens burnout to a teakettle: "When all the heat and steam build up inside and you hear the kettle whistling, it is like a scream for help."
When my kettle started whistling, I realized I needed to put on my own oxygen mask before helping my mother with hers. That is, I needed to nurture myself mentally, physically, and spiritually, so I could continue to care for others.
A Mental Matter
The woman who'd homeschooled me and sewn me red velvet dresses was unable to walk, talk, or change herself, and I couldn't save her. All I could do was pray for a miracle, make her feel comfortable, and fold the laundry. And so when evening came, I painted, because I'm an artist, and creativity relieves me of my stress.
Painting, for me, is prayer in action, a way of releasing worries onto the shoulders of a God who loves me. I also practiced Christ-focused meditation and confided in trusted mentors—women who had been there before, who could help me set boundaries and provide much-needed perspective. Too close to the situation, I needed others to help me see how God was using Mom's illness in the wider scheme of things.
I learned to grieve on the beach with my guitar. I mourned the loss of the mother I'd grown up with. I honored the memories we'd made and repented for the ways I'd hurt her. This allowed me to put the past to rest while granting me "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
But most important—and hardest for us women—I learned to ask for help. I am independent and like to believe that I'm invincible. But that kind of thinking stems from pride, which precedes the fall. Once I learned to humble myself, I was overwhelmed by the number of people who'd been waiting for an invitation to be involved.
In the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support an invalid. As Paul writes in Ephesians 4:16, "He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love." With Dad being a pastor, the congregation was more than happy to weed gardens, cook meals, and even come and sit with Mom while my husband and I had a much-needed date. We also accessed local services such as physical and occupational therapists and a day center, which allowed Mom to get out twice a week.
A sensitive person, I starved myself as a child to numb the pain I felt. When it came to caring for my mother, I knew it would be easy to slip back into a habit of self-abuse. Aware of this tendency to hurt myself on behalf of others, I wrote out a menu and established an exercise routine. This not only gave me the nutrition I needed, but the chance to release any pent-up emotions by running or using the elliptical.
As women, we have the tendency to take on one another's burdens. We punish ourselves by staying up all hours of the night worrying, or by overeating or under-eating as though we're not worth the effort of nutrition. But as believers, our responsibility is to release those burdens to Jesus. "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest," he says in Matthew 11:28. A well-rested, healthy person exhibits strong faith in Christ, for rest is a gift from Jesus we have only to accept.
No matter the stress of the day, each evening I would draw myself a bath or brew some tea and read a good book. Having battled insomnia in the past, I knew the importance of a good night's sleep. By caring for ourselves—eating three meals a day, exercising, and getting a decent amount of rest—we declare Christ able to care for our problems. And his burden is easy, he says; his yoke is light.
The Soul Issue
Caring for others takes no greater toll than on the soul. It's an invisible toll that expresses itself mentally and physically. And it's a toll that requires divine intervention.
There were numerous nights I'd cry out to God, asking him, Why? Why did you let Mom get sick? Why did you, the all-powerful one, let anyone get sick? And when, if ever, will you intervene? I wanted to reconnect with a God who felt far away.
Trust requires honest communication. In order to trust God, we need to be honest with him, knowing that this "High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
We have to believe that God is bigger than our sadness, bigger than our doubts and fears, and that he understands. He watched his own son die, unjustly, causing him unimaginable grief. When our world cracks in two, we need to let him comfort us.
While God is big enough to handle our questions, we need to remain small enough to hear the answers. For he often speaks in whispers. He spoke to me of his grace in the way that Mom danced when she couldn't walk, the way her feet would tap to worship music, and the way her mouth formed words to lyrics.
And he spoke to me through my act of faith in giving thanks, even when it was most difficult.
"The act of sacrificing thank offerings to God—even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion—this prepares the way for God to show us his fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives," writes Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Gifts. "At the Eucharist, Christ breaks his heart to heal ours—Christ, the complete accomplishment of our salvation. And the miracle of eucharisteo never ends …"
And in the end, it's this grace—this hard task of giving thanks even in the worst of circumstances—that saves us mind, body, and soul.
Emily Wierenga is a freelance author and mom who cared for her mother for three years during her mother's battle with brain cancer. Now she helps care for her mother-in-law who suffers with breast cancer.