What I’m Learning About Being a Male Caregiver
More and more of us are being called to be Caregivers for loved ones as well as helpers and healers for those we are called to serve in a world out of balance. In Part 1 I described the call that changed my life. “Jed, I’ve fallen,” Carlin’s words on my cell phone got me running for the keys to the car. “I need help. I’m near the corner of North Street and Mendocino.” We quickly went from a stable and familiar life to one that involved the local emergency room at the hospital, partial hip replacement surgery, a stroke that occurred during surgery that resulted in some cognitive and speech problems, three days of hospital stay, and return home to a new configuration in our home (hospital bed downstairs, bedrooms are upstairs) and our lives. In Part 2, I talked about the intimacy and exhaustion that comes with 24/7 home health care.
Although I had done some family caregiving for my mother, father, and Carlin’s mother; my caregiving was mostly focused “out in the world” with clients I saw for healing in my psychotherapy practice and in programs to help men and the families who loved them throughout the world. My website MenAlive.com has been my window to the world where I have been helping men and their families live fully, love deeply, and make a positive difference in the world for more than fifty years now.
When I reached out for support to help me with the 101 things that needed to be done when Carlin was in the hospital and the many more that needed to be one when she came home, I found that a number of women friends had experience caring for older family members. Certainly caretaking is not limited to women, but women seem to be called upon more and step up for this kind of personal care more often than men do.
When all this began I panicked. How am I ever going to do all the things I need to do to take care of Carlin? The first thing I did was to call our son Aaron whose partner, Jennifer, is fortunately a Home Health-Care Nurse. They immediately flew from their home in Alabama and stayed with us for ten days. Jen was well-versed in caregiving, both professionally and taking care of aging parents. She helped me make sense of all the medications Carlin needed and set up some structure of what was needed. Aaron provided additional support. Our friend Yvonne, who was also experienced in caregiving, helped me with all the hospital contacts with doctors, nurses, and other personnel, as well as helping organize food support when we came home and other things we needed.
I never knew there was so much work that women do. I have gained a whole new level of respect, appreciation, and gratitude for work that I have taken for granted and I often overlooked in my desire to do the “important” work out in the world. I also re-remembered skills I had developed helping our daughter Angela when she was a baby.
My first wife, Candace, and I had adopted Angela when she was 2 ½ months old. She had a cleft palate at birth and had trouble sleeping the first year and caring for her required the best of both of us. When she was one-year old she had surgery to repair the palate and she didn’t sleep much the second year. Both my wife and I were beyond exhausted, but we learned to care for someone in need. There was no way I could turn over the caretaking to my wife. I was needed and I needed to learn how to nurture and care. Now Angela is a mother herself and has four beautiful children. She is a great caregiver and I continue to learn from her every day what it means to love deeply and well and care for those in need.
I’ve come to realize that too many men never learn the joys of intimate caregiving. Too many of us are taught that caretaking is women’s work, so when caregiving is needed we look the other way and hope a woman will step up who knows what to do. As a result we often don’t learn good caregiving skills and don’t take good care of ourselves or each other. It is one of the reasons, I believe, that men die sooner and live sicker than women. We don’t learn to nurture ourselves and we don’t learn to care for other men friends. It is also one of the reasons that men are so irritable, angry, and lonely.
I’ve written extensively about these issues in books and articles. In a recent article, “Why Are Men So Angry and What Do They Really Need?” I said,
“researchers have found that men have significantly fewer friends than women, especially close friendships or best friends. Instead, men often have ‘activity friends’ such as a weekly tennis partner or drinking buddy. The friendship is often based on the exchange of favors rather than emotional support. Men often are able to advance their careers with these kinds of friendships, but they fall short of what most of us need. As a result, many men feel isolated and angry.”
I remember the first time I realized that men could be caregivers. I was in my 20s, had been in and out of multiple relationships and was between girlfriends. I lived alone and got very sick with bronchitis that turned into pneumonia. In the past when I was sick I would reach out to a girlfriend or my mother when she was alive. It never occurred to me to call a male friend. I only did that when I needed help with my car or moving a piano.
But I was desperate. I called David and told him I was sick and needed help. He immediately came over with homemade chicken soup. He also gave me a massage and offered to come back and see me again. I literally couldn’t believe that I had male friends who could nurture and care for me and were not only open, but willing to offer a helping hand and could also listen to my fears and worries. It opened me up a whole new world.
Later I joined a men’s group. Our group has been meeting now for a long time. My wife, Carlin, says one the main reasons we have had a great 43-year marriage is that I have been in a men’s group for 44 years. I’ve learned more about caretaking over the years and these guys, particularly, Tom, Denis, and Tony, have been there for me over the years as I have been there for them.
Tom Mattlack is also a friend and fellow writer. I have truly appreciated his regular articles on men. I particularly appreciated his recent article, “How Many Guys Do You Have in Your Corner?” He begins the article with a series of provocative and important questions:
If you woke up in the middle of the night upset, or you had an emergency, or your wife told you she wanted a divorce…how many guys do you have in your contacts that you could call, no questions asked? The answer is the most significant determinant of your physical and emotional well-being. The number of men who say “none” is staggering. To be healthy, you need three. To be really healthy, you need five or more.
I used to be the one of the many guys who had none. Now I can confidently say I have more than five. It has taken me forty-four years to get there. It is never too late to begin wherever you are. It is not easy, believe me, but the payoff is huge. It is truly lifesaving.
We need more male caregivers in the world. Are you one? Do you know one? Will you become one? I look forward to hearing from you. Please share your experiences, thoughts, and feelings. If you like these kinds of article, please subscribe to my free weekly newsletter.