As a working mother I am pretty close to guilt-free, but caregiver guilt is a different story. I just can’t feel bad about providing for my family. And I never feel guilty if I put my family ahead of my work. But as a working daughter, I am less successful managing guilt. Guilt is very common, perhaps even inevitable, among family caregivers. The reasons caregivers feel guilty are plentiful:
- Guilt they are not spending enough time with their parent(s).
- Guilt they are not spending enough time with their kids because they are spending time with their parent(s).
- Guilt that their spouse is the last person they think about.
- Guilt that they are not taking care of themselves.
- Guilt that they make their well-being a priority and never miss a workout.
- Guilt that they are unfocused at work due to their caregiving to-do lists.
- Guilt that they care about career when they have parents and a family to care for.
- Guilt for forgetting to do something for their parent(s) because their week was so crazy.
- Guilt for moving their parent(s) to senior living.
- Guilt for letting their parent(s) stay in a home they can no longer handle.
- Guilt for not moving their parent(s) in with them.
- Guilt that they did move their parent(s) in and it is impacting their kids and spouse.
- Guilt for resenting the time caregiving takes.
- Guilt for rushing or judging their elderly parent(s).
- Major guilt for sometimes thinking that their life would be easier if their parent(s) died.
Caregiver guilt runs the gamut from thinking your actions hurt someone (I didn’t visit and they were lonely), to wishing you did something but didn’t (I wanted to call yesterday but I didn’t), guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone (see items 1-12 above), and guilt for what you are thinking (see items 13, 14 and 15).
Not all guilt is bad. As caregivers, we need to pay attention to our guilt and what it is telling us. If we feel guilty because we wanted to do something but we didn’t, we can change our behaviors. For example, if you want to provide an occasional meal to someone who can no longer cook, stock the pantry with the ingredients for one or two easy-to-make meals or keep the delivery number for the local deli in your phone contacts. If you feel guilty about what you are thinking, take steps to make sure you don’t act on those feelings and take comfort in the fact they are only thoughts.
When examining your guilt, you need to check your feelings of omnipotence. You are not responsible for other people’s feelings. And you do not factor as much in someone’s life as your guilt would lead you to believe. Guilt makes you think you have more power than you do. You do not. Guilt makes you think you have more power than you do. You do not. Click To TweetBehavior experts call this disproportionate guilt. It makes you feel responsible for things you have no control over – like other people’s lives. And when you act out of disproportionate guilt, you start to grow resentful. This is the bad guilt.
So how do you stop the guilt cycle? You eliminate one powerful word from your vocabulary: Should.
Take a few minutes and listen to the “shoulds” in your head. As a caregiver, your head is probably full of them. Are you surprised at how many there are? How many of those shoulds are your own voice and how many are based on someone else’s value system playing in your head? Chances are your shoulds come from other people: your parents, siblings, professional caregivers, doctors, so-called experts, the media. You should move your father into your home. You should take time off of work to help your parents. You should call/visit/help more. When you act on shoulds, instead of on your own wants, you grow resentful – fast. Stop shoulding all over yourself. Click To TweetAnd, at the end of the day, the only opinion that really matters is the one you have of yourself. Only you know the circumstances, the time constraints, the resources, and the relationships that impact you as a caregiver. Others may judge; but that’s not your issue. In order to overcome harmful caregiver guilt, lose the shoulds. Here’s how:
Get a piece of paper and fold it into two columns. In the left column, list all of the shoulds playing in your head. Then, in the right column, list the things you truly want to do as a caregiver. Don’t worry about how you will accomplish those things, or what the outcome will look like, just list them. Don’t think about this exercise too much, just start writing.
When you have exhausted the lists, look for the relationships between the shoulds and the wants. In the left hand column may be something like, “I should visit my Mom daily and help her so she can remain in her home.” That “should” may have a match on the right that looks like this, “I want to help my mother live as independently as possible.” Now think about where you truly must step in and make that want happen. Do you really need to take over running your mother’s household in order for her to stay at home? Of course not. Perhaps siblings can help. Perhaps a home health aid is an option. Maybe your mother just needs to retrofit the house. Maybe she just needs rides to appointments, or meals delivered a few days a week. See? You are not all powerful in your mother’s life. She, and you, have many options. Act on what you want to do to help, not what you think you should do.
When my mother stopped driving, I felt like I should take her grocery shopping every weekend. I felt like that is what my relatives thought a good daughter should do. But I worked all week and only had 48 brief hours each weekend to rest, spend time with my children, run my own errands, etc. But because I listened to “should” I drove three hours round trip every weekend and took my mother, on her walker, to the grocery store. The trip to the store took forever and I always rushed home as soon as the groceries were all put away. And I was cranky. I was cranky while I was with my mother. I was cranky at home with my husband. I was cranky with my kids because I felt squeezed for time. Nobody won. And then one day, it just clicked. I wanted to get groceries for my mother. I did not want to take her to the store. I was willing to order the food online, or do the shopping by myself because it was faster. And I wasn’t all-powerful in my mother’s life. If she didn’t like what I was willing to offer, she had other options. And so I started ordering the groceries online and visiting with her on the weekends. My mother missed her trips to the store, but sometimes a neighbor would take her, she always had food, and I had more time to sit and visit with her.
Here’s another example. In the should column you may have written something like, “I should accompany my father to all of his doctor’s appointments.” The match in the want column might say, “I want to be my father’s healthcare proxy and advocate.” There are ways to achieve what you want without spending several hours a month, or week, in waiting rooms. You can schedule consultations with the doctor. You can email the doctor questions. You can be a powerful and effective proxy without taking time out of work, or away from your kids.
You can be a good daughter with less guilt and less resentment. You just need to lose the shoulds.
For more on managing caregiver guilt: