“We are all just walking each other home.” ~ Ram Dass
Four years ago, I made the monumental life shift from only really having to care for one person – myself. Of course there were many people I sometimes offered care to – my partner, friends, family, neighbours and community members – but my only real responsibility was to keep this one human alive and well, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And that in itself was not always an easy job! When my daughter was born it was like being pushed into the deep end of the caregiver pool. Suddenly this tiny human was completely reliant on me for all her needs, including feeding her from my labour-weary body. Just like that, my world shifted and my role as caregiver exploded into an entirely new realm.
Nothing can really prepare you for becoming a parent. The gravitas of the immense responsibility of the role you’ve taken on doesn’t take long to sink in between feeding, burping, changing diapers, rocking to sleep, dressing, and cleaning. Oh the cleaning! The clothes, the house, your tiny human, and when possible, yourself.
In those early days, especially when you hear that helpless newborn cry, nothing else really matters but making sure your child is healthy and, most importantly, breathing. That in itself is enough to keep you from sleeping. Caring for yourself inevitably starts to slide. Out goes your own hygiene, healthy food choices, daily practices of movement and meditation, and so on and so on. Caring for another human has the capacity of being all consuming, without any checks or healthy boundaries in place. Even as I write this, and try to keep my train of thought together with the background of Dora playing on the computer, I am wiping away the snot of my very sick girl in between sentences.
Caregivers have held an important position over the course of human history – they are in fact the reason we have a history at all. We are all born essentially helpless. Our survival depends completely on the selfless service, compassion, love and kindness of others. In the past few years of a worldwide pandemic, the role of the caregiver has become ever more critical. From the healthcare workers to the family members, friends and neighbours who all stepped up to support one another physically and emotionally, I’m sure almost everyone found themselves in this caregiver role at some time over the past two and a half years.
During this time, I found my role of caregiver expanding once again. This time to include my ailing father, whose cancer treatments and check ups often took a back seat to Covid in a stressed out, maxed out healthcare system. My father fell very ill, very quickly in March of 2022. His decline was so sudden and severe that I flew across the country in a few days’ notice to say my final goodbyes to him, leaving my post as primary caregiver to my daughter for the first time since she was born.
My Dad didn’t pass that week in March. Incapacitated in his hospital bed, he was lovingly cared for around the clock by myself, my mother, sisters, and some very over extended nurses. He required everything a newborn does – emotional and physical care: feeding, drinking, changing, and bathing. But in addition he also required help with medications and keeping a watchful eye on his IV. Once again, just like with my daughter, I found myself watching and listening to him breathing in the night.
The week was emotionally and physically exhausting, as not only did my Dad require constant care for all his needs, but in addition I was launched into anticipatory grief. I was so depleted that even responding to a text or email, cooking or caring for myself became too much.
What did end up getting me through that challenging week (and the weeks that have followed as my Dad has remained in hospital ever since), was the support and care I received from family and friends, and the commitment to my own self care practices. When I couldn’t sleep I took solace in the fact that my body and mind were resting as I practiced meditation, yoga nidra and restorative yoga. I believe that’s what enabled me to somehow carry on caring for my Dad, in what was one of the most challenging weeks of my life.
It’s so easy to lose yourself in the care of another human being. But as I’ve learned, and keep learning, you can’t pour from an empty cup. What fills my cup? My daily practices of meditation, gratitude and movement. Weekly connection in community with like minded individuals. And every now and then an immersive deep dive into my own self care on retreat, even if just for a few days. What can I do more simply? Nourish myself with healthy food and clean water. Rest. Spend time in Nature. Call a friend. Disconnect from devices. Take a deep breath. And another. And another.
Last month, I returned to Vancouver for another visit to my Dad’s hospital bedside, this time in the Acute care wing as he had made enough of a recovery to be moved from Palliative. While his death looked less imminent, the week was no less emotionally and physically exhausting. But I had some experience this time with how best to prepare, nourish, and restore myself after such a week. I dove deep into my self care practices (which now also included therapy) in anticipation of this trip. And following, I booked myself into a rejuvenating solo retreat at the brand new Bloom Holistic Retreat Centre.
I came home finally feeling restored, but as it turned out, I also came home to a very, very sick kid. Feverish, tremors, cough and cold. I stayed up that night, holding my ailing daughter in my arms, listening for her laboured breath. It became clearer than ever that night that self care is non-negotiable. Though I had struggled with some feelings of “Mom guilt” leaving my daughter behind while I went on retreat, it is precisely because I had taken the care to restore, replenish and reconnect to myself, that I had the capacity and clear head to give my daughter the care she needed in that moment.
These challenging years have been a continual reminder to me that the most important caregiver relationship is the one we have with ourselves. We live in a global village, but we do not need to take on the weight of the world to support it. We only need to hold up our part of that very interconnected web. And the best way we can do this is through prioritizing self care. Self care is not something that can get relegated to a two week vacation every year. It’s something that needs to be in our vernacular, in our employment contracts, and in our own commitments to ourselves. It is not a selfish act. If we look after ourselves we will have the capacity to look after each other.
It is in fact the most caring thing you can do.
*Stephanie practices and teaches many forms of meditation from mindfulness, to Zen Buddhist to Vipassana and somatic based practices. She is passionate about the union of mind-body practices that bring increased awareness (not to mention a host of other benefits) to all our inner and outer experiences.