We talk so much about caring for our beloved elders, our extremely young family members, and our loved ones who have special needs, that sometimes we forget about one of the most common variations of family caregiver: those who are caring for our partners. I like to think of this kind of care as a different dialect within the language of love.
As a wife, I have been the recipient of capital-C caregiving, though fortunately it was for a finite length of time. My exuberant 100+-pound puppy sideswiped me on the stairs and caused damage to my ACL. I walked on that injured leg for two years, with only a little bit of occasional pain, then slipped on ice.
What had initially been a bad sprain or partial tear became complete. By the time I had surgical intervention, I’d torn three ligaments in my left leg (ACL, LCL, ALL) and shredded my meniscus.
My orthopedic surgeon fixed the mechanics, and my physical therapist helped me regain strength and flexibility, but it was my husband who had to provide in-house care for me for the eight weeks post-operation when I was not allowed to put weight (toe-touch weight for balance, only) on that leg.
It changed our relationship.
For the first week, I was wearing a locking brace that went from my thigh to my ankle. Ever the science-fiction fan, I nicknamed it the Borg brace. That was the week when I learned the hard way that even the strongest of us, those of us who are accustomed to giving help, must sometimes learn to accept it.
I had changed from the person who used to rearrange the living room furniture on whim whenever my husband was out of the country for work, to a person who needed help going to the bathroom in a house that was built before ADA-compliant doorways were required.
The easy part, for Fuzzy (my husband) was moving my office from one of the four upstairs bedrooms to our dining room (our bedroom suite was on the ground floor). Then he “hacked” the bathroom for me, putting a hook outside the door to the toilet, and buying a cheap aluminum walker that I could brace on when sitting or standing. (Outside the bathroom, I had a rolling walker.)
The more difficult part, for both of us, was that I needed assistance with things I’d never thought about. Not just detaching the cryo pumps from the system that saved us from constantly changing ice packs during that crucial first week, but in cleaning myself when I was finished using the facilities.
Showers, which had always been my time to belt out songs in the most acoustically perfect place in the house, became a joint activity. Fuzzy would move all the bathmats so I could roll the walker right to the shower door, help me balance while I hopped into the stall, put the rugs back, and then sit on my walker ready to hand me things like shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and the hand-held sprayer.
As someone who grew up in music and theatre, I had very little modesty, but there’s a huge difference between flashing a bit too much skin and not being able to clean your private parts without assistance.
For some couples, even a temporary chance in dynamics like this can be disastrous. The caregiving partner may still have to go to work – we both work from home, but so many others don’t. There can be resentment about being constantly on call. There can be a loss of romantic and sexual intimacy because roles have shifted, or because the caregiving partner is afraid of causing pain or discomfort.
I’m incredibly lucky that our relationship deepened during my time needing care. I had always been the primary cook in our home while Fuzzy did the dishes. Because I’m an intuitive cook (and was often loopy from pain medication) and he’s an engineer who requires step-by-step instructions, we started using meal kits (Sun Basket, Home Chef, Hungry Root – we tried them all) and once I could bend my knee to sit in a chair, I would do prep at the kitchen table while he did the actual cooking. Making food together is something that remains part of our relationship nearly six five years later, but the laughter and conversations we had while cooking are what helped keep our marriage intact.
Too often, when we care for our life partners, the roles shift too far. Instead of lovers, we become clinicians. Because we must touch those we care for to assist them, we stop touching them to express affection. Granted, that compartmentalization is often necessary to preserve our own sanity, but when our time giving or receiving care is temporary, it’s often difficult or impossible to revert to the prior status.
My husband and I are fortunate. His intense caregiving and my need for it were caused by an injury, and I recovered. Our marriage deepened, and we found new joy in each other’s company.
Not everyone is so lucky. We’ve all read stories about marriages ending because one partner had to care for the other in ways they never anticipated. As outsiders, we often judge those people – perhaps unfairly – for “abandoning” their recovered partner. Until you’ve lived it, however, you do not – cannot – truly understand the intricacies of relationship role-shifting.
Caring for a partner during their end time is also a different and special dynamic. While I cannot speak to it directly, I witnessed it with my parents. Look for a post about that in the future.
In the meantime, remember that caregiving is its own dialect within the language of love, and while many of us have similar experiences, no two journeys are exactly the same.