Updated: May 1, 2021
By Tahmina R. and Mariam H.
Have you ever felt trapped in the needs of others?
Growing up, we saw women as the bedrock of a family. They were an institution unto themselves. Carrying tradition, values and memories from generation to generation, they were used to ensuring the wellbeing of everyone above and before themselves. They never faltered.
The caretaker complex is a concept that describes the physical, emotional or mental exhaustion resulting from a person neglecting themselves in favour of caring for someone else, or other people. It’s a dynamic where we see caring as a way of loving and our responsibilities to one another as the most sacred of bonds, and therefore worthy of the tireless effort they require to cultivate.
The caretaker was a role we had seen the women in our lives play for decades and it became one that we started to take on into adulthood. Aware that this mutual duty, obligation and care is what distinguishes our communities from broader Australian society where we do not see value pursuing personal happiness above everything else - these are some of our reflections to create space to unlearn the caretaker complex without disrespecting the wisdom of the value systems that gave rise to it.
In every way that we can, we are raised to think of our family and our friends as having rights over us and of us having rights over them. In this framework, caretaking is the glue that holds everything together - embedded in the very fabric of the way we relate to one another. From the women who raised me, I saw that preserving and caring for one another could be more fulfilling than caring for yourself and that in all the ways that count, personal happiness is more dependent on how you give than what you take. All unflinchingly selfless. Growing up, these were characteristics I idealised but I didn’t ever question whether there should be a limit to just how much they gave.
Most people would agree that their mother is a force of nature. My sister and I joke that it’s tiring to see ours, twice our age and still with more energy than the two of us combined. Every conversation we have where we ask her to slow down or take even just a short breather is met with a quippy joke or her insistence that she doesn’t need a break. Her absolute unwillingness to take rest when she wants and not when she desperately needs to is the result. And honestly, it’s tiring just watching.
From the women in my family I learned that to be a woman is to be a fountain of unflinching, unyielding strength. When I would ask them why they had to be there for everyone, the answer was never tied to a sense of duty or moral obligation. Rather it was always “because we know we can.” There was an unquestioned belief in their own emotional invincibility.
The women in my family are the caretakers. They keep everything. Every memory, every heartbreak and every emotion. Over time it seeps into their soul and it weaves itself into their very being. As a child, this Amazonian ideal is what I attempted to live up to. I never quite managed it. The more I tried to be a good daughter, sister, cousin while still trying to laugh, to smile, to be kind, to keep my temper and to be good natured, the harder it became, and it never managed to ease the trauma and pain that lived in those I loved most.
Seeking professional help for the first time at the age of nineteen despite having lived with depression and anxiety since childhood, all I remember is feeling selfish. Selfish at taking the time. Selfish at thinking I was “suffering.” And more than anything selfish that I dared to help myself before others that had it much worse than me.
Trying to Unlearn
The caretaker complex is having one set of expectations for others and double that for yourself. My grandmother developed arthritis in her hands two years ago and when I think of what it means to care, I think of her hands. When I took her to her first appointment with the hand therapist, her biggest worry was what they would tell her she could no longer do.
Even still, we have long conversations that go around in circles, where I tell her she has to reduce the time she spends doing work that puts pressure on her joints and she denies there’s even a problem. Most weeks I’ll go out into her garden, and there’ll still be cottons hanging on the line that she’s washed and rung out by hand. When I ask her why she didn’t use the machine, her cheeks red from being in the sun all morning, she explains “there were only a few.”
Then she’ll go out to the garden for a couple of hours, pruning and trimming until her hand tires. As long as it’s relatively painless, she’ll keep doing what she’s always done. She’s raised three children and four grandchildren with those hands but the thought of giving them a break makes her laugh. And I know that if it was anyone else in her position, there’s no way she would let them carry on like she does. I’m sure that this experience is one that most of you have seen your mother or grandmother or aunt or sister take on.
Personal happiness isn’t something that my mother ever really aspired to. In her youth, it was really just about survival. Survival of her family, survival of her memories, and survival of a future. The future. Everything was working towards a future, where she would find time for herself, time to relax, time to enjoy, a time that would never come. Because my mother could never be happy if those that she loved most were not happy and content. She wouldn’t rest until she had ensured that everything was right for them, and then, only then, could she consider what it would mean for her.
Starting to unpack my own intergenerational trauma, and beginning along a path of recovery rooted in Western ideals of individualism and personal happiness, I began to reject the concept of sacrifice and patience I had been raised with. I felt that the only way forward was if I focused on all of my own wants and needs. Having come close to a precipice, I just needed to be okay. I had somehow internalised this idea that seeking professional help was selfish, and so if that had helped, then it stood to reason that the way to continue was to focus only on myself and the happiness I could carve out for myself.
That of course did not go as planned; my existence is intricately interconnected with those of my family and community. So the only way I could see outside of this caretaker complex, was to reject what I felt were the traditional trappings of my culture. To quite literally move as far as I could. This made me miserable, but I continued, because I felt it was the only way to grow.
There’s a lot I’ve internalised about selflessness through self-sacrifice, much of which I still don’t fully understand. I struggle to look at the women around me, giving everyone their best and keeping very little for themselves, because it makes me feel like I one day will have to do the same. And I don’t want to. Over the last year or so I’ve been actively trying to feel less responsible for the emotional wellbeing of people around me, reminding myself to only give as much as I can, and trying not to feel guilty.
In taking a step back, we can also allow the men in our lives to fulfil this role as carer in a different way than they’ve been required to in the past. The task of caring has become gendered - with women being socialised to believe that they are better or more natural carers just by being women. And I’ve internalised so much of this. I’m aware that I’ve always expected full hearted emotional support from my mother but not the same from my father. But in the instances where I have sought advice from my father, he has jumped at the opportunity to listen to my thoughts and to share advice he believes I could benefit from.
How many of you rely on your father and expect the same level of emotional support as you expect from your mother? If you do, I have a lot to learn from you.
I think about who I am today, and my defining life experiences. They are all driven by a need to take care of those around me, by my own caretaker complex. I have built my identity around living in relation to those around me. Attempting to help, even when it wasn’t asked of me and always trying to anticipate the needs of those around me. My career as an occupation therapist, as much as I love it, if I am honest with myself, I chose because I needed to learn how to help the people around me. The caretaker complex is for better or worse a part of who I am. It is the echoes of the women who came before me and fought for the life and privileges I now get to have.
I may never quite live up to the legacy of the women that raised me, and the women that raised them, but I am learning that that is okay. I am learning to recognise that there will be times those around me will be unwell and there will be nothing I can do.
I think of a conversation I had with my mother one day. I was telling her an analogy for self-care, about needing to put on your own oxygen mask first when a plane crashes, before putting a mask on others. I remember she replied to me perplexed, “No, Of course I would put it on my child first. I would need to make sure they are ok.” I explained that no, this way you can make sure you have enough energy to give the help that the other person needs. My mother remained adamant that she would be able to.
A Final Word.
In describing the caretaker complex, and the instances we feel we’ve seen it, we hope we’ve created a chance for you to also reflect on the caretakers in your life and ask how you see your roles in other peoples lives. It’s a question we kept asking ourselves again and again. But we don’t really know and honestly, these boundaries haven’t been tested in meaningful ways (like marriage or having children). So for now, we’re just trying to become more aware of how we’ve internalised these habits, what we would like to unlearn and which parts we’ll carry into the future.