I think I can pinpoint when it happened, when I became a caretaker. My parents started having irreparable marital problems when I was 19 (they divorced when I was 20), directly brought on by a drug problem my dad had, somewhat suddenly, developed. One night when I was home from college for the summer, when it still wasn’t clear whether my dad would clean up his act or if my mom would be forced to leave him, they were sitting around the dinner table with a family friend who had stepped in as a sort of mediator. I was sitting in a chair in the living room, watching them.
I remember that my mom was expressing her frustration and anxiety. I remember that my dad was laughing at her, being an asshole, and there was an arrogance and callousness to his demeanor that had been so unlike him in the past. And then I saw something out of the corner of my eye, my dad reaching to touch my mom in a way that felt aggressive, at least to me — like, it felt aggressive to me — and before I knew what was happening, I had flown out of my chair and was between them, screaming at him to never touch her again.
“Oh look at you,” he mocked me, as my mom tried to encourage me to settle down. “Goin’ all gangbusters on me.” My mom told me she was fine — and she was. But I wasn’t, or at least, I was never the same after that. In becoming her protector in that moment, I became a protector, a caretaker, and I haven’t shed the role since.
For awhile, this urge to take care of and protect was limited to my role within the family when my parents split. I feared, somewhat unreasonably, for their safety, particularly my mom’s. My dad was unstable and seemed like a stranger, so while he wasn’t necessarily being physically threatening towards her, he wasn’t behaving in a way I recognized at all — for example, verbally harassing her — and that, in itself, was frightening. Away at college, I was often overwhelmed by the feeling that someday something might have to be done to stop him and I was the one who could do it. I didn’t quite know what that entailed, but I would figure it out; I would take care of my family physically and emotionally.
Luckily, my greatest fears never came true, but it didn’t matter; in determining I was the one who would eventually make the tough decisions, the one who would eventually take responsibility, the one who would do whatever it took to make things okay, it became my knee jerk reaction to do so in so many of my relationships going forward. It felt secure and comfortable, it gave me purpose. In a weird way, it made me feel loved or at least worthy of love.
I was the one friends came to for advice, but I kept all of my own shit — problems in my romantic relationships, the ongoing issues with my family, etc. — under lock and key. I found myself drawn to romantic partners who needed “fixing” — not complete basket cases, mind you, but men who were troubled but didn’t want to be anymore. I saw their potential and knew I could make myself “useful.” These relationships, of course, never really worked out. My longest relationship — to my ex-fiance — ultimately came to an end, I think partially because I still saw “potential” in him that he either didn’t see or didn’t want to pursue himself. It didn’t help my state of mind that the language he used during our break and eventual breakup — a desire to “deal” with his issues before walking down the aisle — played into that narrative and I, even as my heart was shattering, focused all my energy on being strong for him so he would be okay and come back to me. “I support you and believe in you!” I would tell him. He never returned. I felt like a failure. This pattern repeated itself, although in much shorter spurts, in every relationship after him.
As my career took off, my ability to take care of and protect my loved ones became both financial and emotional. I would insist on hosting every holiday, cooking elaborate meals, like I was the head of the household tasked with making sure everyone was well-fed and happy. Even when I wasn’t making much money, I always went a little overboard in, say, buying Christmas gifts for my mom, because as a now-single woman, she didn’t have the usual pile of gifts from my father to open. She didn’t care about things, mind you, but I felt useful and good giving them to her. As my financial situation got better, my dad’s got worse, and I began “loaning” him money from time to time. I always thought of it as a gift, however, as I didn’t want an expectation of being paid back, and his probable failure to do so, to impact what relationship we had. Ultimately, though, I gave him money because it was the only thing I could do to help him anymore.
The thing is, of course, that by trying to take care of everyone else, I was really avoiding taking care of myself. And when I wasn’t successful in caring for others — when I wasn’t able to protect them or help them solve their problems or ease their heartache or conquer their insecurities — I felt useless and out of control. I felt unloveable and insecure about my place in their world. Protecting and caring for others, being their rock, their cheerleader, their support system, allowed me to avoid unearthing why I wasn’t as naturally inclined towards being those things for myself.
It wasn’t until somewhat recently that I really began to understand this; I finally decided to, at least for the time being, end the disruptive and emotionally abusive relationship with my dad, and in ignoring his cries for attention/help, I’m forced to sit in stillness with my inability to help him. In feeling that, really feeling that, I’ve started to come to terms with the fact that I can’t help those who won’t help themselves and I can’t force people to reach (my idea of) their “potential” no matter how much I may care about them. Most of all, I’ve realized that taking care of others has distracted me from really looking inward and facing the difficult but oh so worthwhile task of finding that feeling of wholeness and purpose within. In some ways, playing the role of caretaker has been my vice; while there are no physical consequences, my motivations have not always been emotionally healthy and they certainly have not been completely selfless. That can’t go on.
Which is not to say I’m done with being a caretaker completely. I want to be a mother someday and know I’ll do it well. I still find genuine pleasure and honor in helping those I care about, who care about me too, but my desire and ability to do things for them emotionally and financially — helping my brother with expenses while he’s in school, for example — shouldn’t be used to avoid feeling something graver, like failure or unworthiness; they should be completely genuine gifts and not fear-driven transactions. After all, there will be times, probably many of them, when I will genuinely want to help and care for someone, but I won’t be able to — and I have to love myself all the same.