by Rachel Campbell

Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First!

The piece of paper in my hands gave a generic description of a particular Myers Briggs personality type but it could have been written about me personally. This was ESFJ me – The Caregiver. I think I could say that caregiving is my DNA!

Caregiving is an intrinsic part of motherhood. Miscarriages meant that there are larger than intended gaps between our children and so my experience of each stage of parenting has been prolonged. The Toddler Years went on for a while and with them came much joy – humorous moments, unsolicited hugs, whispers of, “I love you Mummy”, the joy of seeing them accomplish something for the first time.

Yes, there were joys, but time has not erased the challenges that came too. I remember those occasional days when the sound of my husband’s key in the door caused a flood of relief and I greeted him with, “There’ll all yours! I’m going for a short walk”. After a brief respite I was fine to be lovely Mummy again.

Those were the days of constantly being on call; I even became convinced that someone had fitted a sensor to the toilet seat – whenever I sat down the children “needed” me or worse, some catastrophe occurred. On one awful occasion my youngest fell and cut her head, just in a matter of seconds. A few moments of “me time” became my deepest longing.

The nature of my caring has changed in the years since then but, with the health challenges that our children face, my caregiving is ongoing. The well-thumbed parenting books of the past have been replaced with books about conditions I knew nothing about a few years ago.  Hospital appointments liberally litter my calendar – if only my social life was that active! I have regularly attended seven hospitals with my children. I am grateful that we live in a country with good medical provision, but hospital attendance is both tiring and demanding. I have met incredible doctors, nurses, psychologists, dieticians, and medical scientists who ooze care. Sadly, there have also been one or two professionals who have caused a great deal of hurt when I’ve been at my most vulnerable.

The best care has been provided by those professionals who understand the context in which their patient lives. This holistic approach has proven medical benefits but it also embraces the vital liaison between home and hospital. Failure to provide this type of care can, and has for me, delivered a message of, “You must do better”, and stirs up the perennial enemy of the caregiver, guilt.

As part of the necessary battle to suppress that guilt, there has to be an acceptance that there is always more that can be done, more care that can be given. In practice, many of us who provide care are doing our best without training, without remuneration, and often without recognition, and our best is enough.

There are inevitable consequences of care-giving beyond what it is considered normal child-rearing; a detrimental impact on finances is an obvious one. Frequent hospital appointments have meant that I have taken flexible, part-time jobs which pay at a lower level than the teaching career I enjoyed before I had the children.

Sleep is often the victim of caregiving, and with that deprivation can come a questioning of self -worth, and depression can easily follow. In this climate of constant giving out, it becomes important to find some respite, like my short walk escape of the Toddler Years. “Putting the oxygen mask on yourself first” is sage advice but difficult to do. For many years I considered that this instruction was for others, not for me, but as stress piled up, I came to realize that my lack of care for myself was compromising my ability to care for others.

Self-care can be simple and inexpensive – a walk with a friend, an occasional lunch at a local café, or the reading of an escapist novel. Through these brief respites I regained lost patience, and was able to face difficult situations with a level of pragmatism, rather than a knee-jerk reaction that bordered on panic. On occasions I even found the courage to say, “No” to additional demands.

My greatest caregiving challenge of all has been self-inflicted. For many years I lived in the desperation that I had to protect my children from everything; that it was solely up to me to predict any illness or difficult circumstance that they might face, and then to move heaven and earth to avoid it. I would haven’t denied God’s presence with me, but in reality, this was diluted and distant.

I was on a pathway to self-destruction, with a knotted stomach and a tendency to jump in the air at the slightest noise, when the Apostle Peter’s words spoke clearly to me,

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Pet 5:7)

The anxiety that weighed me down, that blighted my enjoyment of life, and in particular my enjoyment of my children, needed to be thrown away, cast like a fishing line from me, and I could do this because there was One who was my own 24/7 Caregiver.

At some point in our lives, many of us will step into the role of carer, to our children, or parents, our spouse or a friend. Undoubtedly there will be challenges for us but there will be blessings too. We do not walk this path alone. There is One who,

…sticks closer than a brother. (Prov 18:24)

One who, in the lonely bleakness of yet another night of disturbed sleep, promises,

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5)

He understands what it is to have the responsibility for, not just the earthly lives of others resting on Him, but their eternal destiny too. He is the ultimate Caregiver whose care is expressed in this beautiful verse from Deuteronomy,

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms (Deut 33:27).

Rachel Campbell, having recently completed a two-year Biblical Literacy course, has recently started a M.A. in Theology. She appreciates the opportunity to write for this journal and others. Rachel lives in the UK with her NZ husband, Grant, and her three children, and tweets at @OurRachToo.