Being a Carer
This week I want to talk about the ‘C’ word. It affects hundreds, thousands, even millions of people and the vast majority are women and many of them are getting on. It’s the Cinderella of the health service because it concerns mostly the old and vulnerable. And Covid has made every aspect of it much worse for lots of reasons and for very many people. I am talking about how we as a society take care of our most vulnerable people and the disproportionate burden we place on women to become carers either of their own ageing parents, a disabled child or sometimes for a spouse who needs to be looked after.
I have come to this topic because I was very struck by a post on Super Troopers this week and because I have been reading a book by Kate Mosse called ‘An Extra Pair of Hands’.
First the post on Facebook. It was an entry for our competition to win your favourite LFF product if you told us why you love it. Susannah, a 75 year old Super Trooper extolled the virtues of how our eye cream has got rid of her eye bags and then she wrote this:
“I am a full time carer for my husband who has Myeloma (bone marrow cancer). By the end of the day when I have finally got him into bed, I am exhausted. Then I go and get myself ready for bed. I cleanse my face and then open the pot of eye cream. I put a little bit on the end of my ring finger, then rub both ring fingers together to get an even amount on each finger and to warm up the product. Then comes the moment!!! The Ahhh Moment!! I start applying to the outside corners of my eyes, then inwards over the bluey, baggy bit and then circle right round the eye, and it's such a lovely relaxing moment. I feel 'me' again and I relax and enjoy the lovely moment of the beautiful feel of the cream. I have got us both through another day so I must have done alright. I can leave tomorrow to look after itself. Time for bed and sleeeeeeep!”
In a few short sentences Susannah conveys pretty much everything that caring for another person entails: the worry, the exhaustion, the sense of responsibility, the living day by day, even hour by hour and the need to give yourself, however briefly, a moment to stop and care for yourself so that you can ‘relax and enjoy a lovely moment’, and also to take time to reflect on the fact that you have done your best for the person you love.
The Kate Mosse book came to my attention via a review in The Times and I was intrigued as it’s subtitled ‘A story of caring, ageing and everyday acts of love.’ So I read the book and asked my daughter Anna to see if Kate Mosse, a best-selling novelist, would agree to be interviewed for a Tricia Talk. Happily, she is joining me on Tuesday 20th July to tell us her story. The book is a beautiful and moving tribute to her parents and mother-in-law all of whom reached advanced age and all of whom Kate and her family cared for in shared accommodation, allowing each to stay at home until, in her parents' case, they both passed away. I believe that Kate’s mother-in-law, the beloved Granny Rosie, is still going, if not very strongly, having just turned ninety years of age.
Kate Mosse is the bestselling author of 'An Extra Pair of Hands'
'An Extra Pair of Hands' is a powerful memoir about Kate's life as a carer
I’ve experienced two periods of caring for a family member, one very brief time when my mother became terminally ill and was in no way comparable to either Susannah or Kate’s committed long term care, and another which lasted for about a year and whilst very different from caring for an elderly relative or ill spouse, it had many of the hallmarks that they both mention.
My more demanding year of caring came in January 2012. Suddenly there was a sick baby to worry about. It all started so slowly and then speeded up. I felt an immediate concern and responsibility for my daughter, Suzy who had just had an emergency Caesarean and had only briefly been able to go home before being back in hospital sleeping on a very uncomfortable chair-bed beside her tiny baby who was getting more and more sick. There was also her two year old, Freya whose mother had all but disappeared and who needed to be cared for.
Like a lot of women in that situation I felt a huge sense of responsibility. I wanted to make everything better for everyone. I wanted to support my devastated daughter and her husband. I also wanted to comfort Freya who was bewildered and lost without her mum. And I wanted to help with India, the baby, so that Suzy could get some proper rest and spend time with Freya. And gradually, like many of you reading this who bear the same kind of responsibility for caring for people you love, life started to assume a pattern. I split my time between Suzy’s home to look after Freya, the hospital (first St Thomas’s and then, after 6 months, St. George’s, mostly in their PICU), when I would either be with India so that Suzy could go home for a much needed break, or I would be with Suzy in the hospital because it was so often terrifying and challenging to deal with whatever was happening with India.
What did I learn about devoting so much time, care and support to others?
1. First and foremost it’s exhausting in a way that is different from other forms of tiredness. I think that’s to do with the relentless nature of caring for others, day in and day out, combined with constant worry and occasional bouts of real terror and high drama.
2. It’s easy to let the demands of care drown out everything else in your life because it’s so hard to do all the normal things that make life worth living. My friends were brilliantly supportive and kind and understanding but it often felt unbalanced because I was so consumed by the situation and could think and talk of little else.
3. It’s quite hard to be positive and upbeat all the time. I am a total optimist but every now and then, the reality would hit me and I’d have to accept that there was no magical (or medical) solution and the situation with India might not have a happy outcome and certainly no cure.
4. It’s normal and human to have ‘off’ days and to feel enormous resentment from time to time. I felt a constant need to help Suzy to come to terms with the situation which was the hardest thing she’d ever had to face. Occasionally I would feel frustrated and impatient with her and want to walk away and just keep on walking. And then I’d realise that she just needed me to be there with her and that I didn’t have to, nor could I, solve all the problems.
5. And finally I learnt that you do need to look after yourself and occasionally admit that you also need some support. After India was finally diagnosed (aged 3 months) with a rare chromosomal disorder, meaning she’d never be ‘better’, I asked some very good friends in Cambridge if I could stay with them for the weekend . It was the best thing I could have done and taught me to ask for help when I needed it rather than doing that very British stiff upper lip thing of saying ‘No - really - I’m fine’.
I’m going to give the final words to Kate Mosse because she sums up what many who assume a caring role feel:
“There were days of anxiety and rage, impatience and guilt at being impatient. The books not written, the endless cycle of laundry, meals that no-one wanted. Ambulances called in the middle of the night. Days of remorse and reproach so familiar to all carers, the sense that you are failing at everything. That I should have done more, coped better.But, when all is said and done, I’d not have had it any other way. We are who we are because of those we love, and those we allow to love us.”
Do join me on Tuesday for my talk with Kate. We’d love to have your company - see joining details for the zoom call at 4pm.
Upcoming Event Information:
Teatime with Tricia - Kate Mosse, Bestselling Author of 'An Extra Pair of Hands'
Kate Mosse is an international bestselling novelist, playwright and nonfiction author with sales of more than 8 million copies in 38 languages. Renowned for bringing unheard and under-heard histories to life, she is the Founder Director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Founder of Woman In History and is a Visiting Professor of Contemporary Fiction and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. Her latest book, An Extra Pair of Hands - her heart-breaking and powerful memoir about her life as a carer - was published to great critical acclaim in June 2021.
Day: Tuesday 20th July
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB
Tricia Talk- Mary Ann Noe, Author of 'To Know Her'
Mary Ann has been writing since she could pick up a pencil, although she jokes that her earliest works could probably line bird cages. She has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. 'To Know Her' is a novel which asks 'how well do we really know our family and friends?'
Day: Tuesday 27th July
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB
Film Club - I Care a Lot
Available on Amazon Prime
Day: Friday 30th July
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB