Lessons from being a caregiver: How to deal with resentment

She took a deep breath, then spilled it out, “I’m so sorry. I know this isn’t what you expected, but we are going to need to admit you to the hospital.”

Bryan and I must have given her the same incredulous look because she shifted uncomfortable and started apologetically explaining in such a round about way that it was difficult to follow her. The gist of it was that Bryan’s liver counts were too high. Way too high.

A short time later, Bryan was all set up in a hospital room on the seventh floor at Mayo and waiting for high dose of IV steroids. What was expected to be a short stay turned into five days when Bryan’s counts increased rather than decreased after the first 24 hours. They doubled the steroid dose and took lots of blood work.

It was a long week.

When things like this happen, I often have to write to figure out what I feel, so here I am trying to figure out what I feel about my husband almost going into liver failure due to the treatment we were giving him for his cancer.

Mostly I felt the sort of numbness that gets you through when the world falls on your shoulders, when you have to care for everyone else and don’t have space to care for yourself, when you’re trying to juggle lots of moving parts and a plethora of different needs. The kids were clingy. Bryan was feverish and weak. And I just needed to get through the day.

We’ve had lots of seasons like this before — survival seasons. Seasons when everything narrows and shrinks and becomes just about getting through the day. But this time I felt less capable of handling it well. I was worn thin already from the past three months of dealing with Sage’s recovery from hip surgery. I felt empty and unable to give more. But we are always asked to give more than we think we are able to.

I wasn’t falling prey to depression or weepiness or the kind of worn feeling that leaves you weak. I was tempted by another demon — self-pity, anger, resentment. They all came knocking at my door, begging to be let in and given full sway.

But, I learned something this week that I don’t think I knew before (at least not in my body), something that felt a bit counter intuitive at first. You don’t beat those demons by ignoring them, locking the door, and trying to act more self-less. That won’t make them go away.

There’s only one way to fight the self-pity, anger, and resentment that comes when you are responsible for meeting everyone else’s needs and you’re own are feeling unmet — whether you’re a caregiver of someone with cancer or just a mom taking care of her kids — you have to open the door, acknowledge what you are feeling, and find some way to fill you cup back up.

The adage “you have to put your own oxygen mask on first” may seem a little trite and overused, but it’s true.

You won’t get your needs met by ignoring that you have them.

There was one day this week when I was feeling particularly stretched thin. I was exhausted from being up with Sage at night. I had spent the last few days running back and forth from being with Bryan at the hospital to being with the kids, taking them to appointments/therapy and getting them ready for school to start. I was fighting a headache and there was a knot in my stomach that made eating entirely unappealing.

After a morning of being at the hospital and then coming back to do therapy with Sage, I had an opportunity to go back to the hospital and be with Bryan again. I started to pack myself up to rush back off to the hospital and then I stopped, took a deep breath, and listened to my body.

There was something under the anger, resentment, and self-pity that I kept trying to ignore — there was a real need. I felt those things not because of the situation I was in, but because I wasn’t taking care of myself in the situation I was in. There were real physical and emotional needs that were going unmet.

I called Bryan up and asked if it would be ok if I didn’t come back to the hospital. Of course he said yes. And of course I felt guilty about it. But I did it, and it felt like one of the bravest things I’ve done lately — choosing to have enough self-respect to take care of myself even in the face of guilt and shame and everyone else’s needs. It felt like bravery for this suppressed girl, who grew up being taught selflessness was the highest value, to assert that she had needs, and that her needs were just as valid as all the needs of those around her.

I stayed home. I took advantage of Thad being at a friends house and I stuck Sage in front of the TV. Then I took a shower and a nap and sat down by myself to eat a real meal (thanks to a generous friend who brought food). And it was glorious. It was just what I needed.

Everything shifted. All those little demons of resentment and self-pity dissolved. I was once again capable of being present with my children and my husband. I was able to care for them well again. It didn’t take a lot, but it did take the courage to face what I felt, express my need, set a boundary, and take care of my body. And let me tell you, these things are not easy for me!

And…Bryan didn’t suffer for it. He spent the afternoon sleeping. Would he have liked to have me with him? Sure. But he got what he really needed too, which was sleep. Me being there, to sit by him while he slept, wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

So, I want to remember this… The next time I’m feeling stretched so thin I might snap, when resentment and self-pity knock, the answer is to take even just a short bit of time to meet my needs, so that I can then meet the needs of another with joy rather than bitterness.

Sometimes I think it’s impossible to actually do this when my family has such big needs all around me, but the truth is I just don’t try. If I really tried I could find ways to sneak in small bits of rest and alone time. I know I could because I did this week — in a week that was exceptionally full of neediness from others! It meant saying no to something, but it was possible.

Maybe, like me, you find yourself feeling that bitter knot of resentment after spending all summer with kids under foot. Maybe you are in a season where your marriage feels less like a partnership than normal because your spouse has some urgent or extreme needs. Maybe your boss is being extra demanding and you feel like things are just piling up on top of you. Stop. Listen to your body. Say no to something. And find even a few short hours to take care of yourself. You won’t regret it.

Grace and peace,

Bethany Stedman