Since I was a little girl, I have always taken on the role of caregiver. My parents broke up when I was young, and I immediately assumed a grown-up role, offering them advice and support – especially my mother, who was left by my father when she was six months pregnant with my little sister.
I cared for and tended to my mother when she was pregnant. At five years old, I would bring her tea and snacks, rub her feet and belly, and listen to her feelings. It was an intense time, and I rose to the role of support person, even when I was shattered inside from my father’s departure. My mother used to tell me that, in another life, I was the mother and she was the child.
When my sister was born, I thought of her as my own child. I helped my mother care for her. And when we were at my father’s house – and especially when he got remarried to a woman we did not always get along with – I was my sister’s guardian, advocate, and sometimes primary caretaker.
Even outside my family, I have always gravitated to the role. I’ve often assumed the role of caretaker to my friends. I’ve chosen careers and volunteer positions that are in the realm of intensive caring and nurturing. I wanted kids from an early age and threw myself headfirst into motherhood.
It’s a role I still gravitate to today – and I know there is beauty in stepping up to the role of nurturer, of being willing to put your own feelings and needs aside to serve others in your life. We natural caretakers feel the feelings of everyone around us. We recognize deeply when someone needs help – often before others do – and we feel a deep need to go in and fix things for them.
But therein lies the rub – and that’s where things can get dangerous. You see, there is dark side to being a natural caretaker. Natural caretakers want to jump in and cure everyone and everything, which is actually impossible. They want to take away everyone else’s problems, sometimes without recognizing that other people’s problems are primarily their own responsibility.
And most of this comes at their own peril.
Back in 2016, I had a bit of breakdown, and it had to do with my role as a caretaker. I had spent the previous 7 years volunteering as a breastfeeding counselor, which required untold hours of unpaid time answering mothers’ breastfeeding questions, online and by phone, holding meetings, etc. I cared deeply about each mother I helped; their challenges and pain often kept me up at night.
Meanwhile, I was a full-time mom to two kids, one of whom wasn’t in school yet. I care deeply about my kids, and they too (of course!) kept me up at night. Their problems were my problems. I think this is a normal feeling for mothers to experience, but for me, it was super-intense, because that’s just the way I am.
Oh, and did I mention I also was running a private practice lactation consultant business (and yes, my clients’ stories and struggles went right to my heart and soul), was freelance writing part-time, and was starting to have to deal with aging parents, and caring for them, too?
It wasn’t just the sheer number of obligations I had, but how each of them was wrapped up in a profound responsibility to give myself up to them – to care and care and care and care.
I began to feel something I hadn’t felt before, or at least something I hadn’t let myself feel before: ANGER. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was pissed the eff off at all the people who seemed to demand my endless love, care, and attention.
I did a little research and it turned out there was actually a condition to describe what I was feeling. It’s called “Caregiver’s Fatigue Syndrome” or “Caregiver’s Burnout” and it can strike anyone who is deep in caregiving – whether for work or in their personal life. And holy moly, I had all the symptoms: irritability, anger, emotional and physical exhaustion, withdrawal from family and friends, and depression.
Soon after my breakdown and subsequent lightbulb moment, I took a hard look at my life, the choices I’d made, and how I was operating. I cut way down on some of my caregiving activities. I stopped volunteering; I cut back on my lactation consultant practice; I worked on some major boundaries with my family members; and I even reevaluated how much hovering and worrying was appropriate for my kids, and thought of ways to step back.
I am in a much healthier place in life now. I still care – a whole hell of a lot. That’s just who I am. But I see that caring for everyone and everything all the damn time is not good for anyone, especially me.
The fact is, in many cases we “born caretakers” were sort of thrown into the position. Maybe there was no other real grown-up in our family and we were forced into the role. Maybe we were told forever and always that the only way to receive love is to please other people. Maybe we thought that by caring for others, we could fix the pain that they inflicted upon us.
I am not saying that every act of caring that natural caregivers enter into is tainted in some dark way. I know that I value all the caring I did for my whole life. But I also think it’s worth evaluating the reasons behind your need to constantly step in and save everyone. It might not look like you thought it did once you dive a little deeper in.
Most of all, if your caregiving tendencies are taking a toll on your mental health, now is the time to set up some boundaries, and do some reorganizing and reprioritizing. Caring should not happen as the expense of your wellbeing. You do not need to sacrifice yourself in order to help others. That is not helpful to you or the person you are hoping to save.
Remember this, too – and I know this is a hard one: Don’t feel guilty about the boundaries you might need to create to save your sanity. We natural caregivers are often driven by guilt. We’ve got plenty of it. But you need to understand that creating boundaries – pushing back sometimes in big ways with your nurturing – is not a bad thing.
The only way that you can continue to bring that incredible light and love to others – the light and love you’ve been blessed with always – is if you are health and happy. And sometimes that means learning the fine art of saying no, holding your ground, and putting your own needs first.
And that’s okay. It’s how you stay strong. It’s how you grow. And it’s how you continue to be that much-needed beacon of kindness and care that the world needs more of.