I love to lead and teach. It’s a part of my natural gifting, the way I’m wired. These traits have been evident from an early age. My mom recalls with fondness the authority with which I lined up my stuffed animals in my bedroom after school, demanding their attention and presenting the new material I’d learned that day. Teaching and leading are also skills I’ve cultivated through 15 plus years of work in the fields of education and Christian ministry, including years of formal training and a graduate degree. I’ve spoken at conferences, mentored groups of new teachers, led my own classroom, and delivered sermons.
Yet my primary vocation in this season is caregiving. I’m a mother to young children and for a myriad of reasons, my husband and I have decided that the best plan for our family is for me to stay home with our sons.
And I’m not alone. Whether it’s caring for an aging parent, raising young children, or supporting a family member with a disability, the number of people acting as caregivers in the U.S. continues to rise. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, nearly 1 in 3 people serve as primary caregivers for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged person in their lives. A majority of them are women. And for the first time since the 1960s, the percentage of women working as stay-at-home moms is on the rise as well.
There are many factors shaping this reality, including the high cost of childcare and nursing help, and the lack of social safety nets. But whatever the reasons, it is evident that caregiving is a role that many people, especially women, will be asked to fill in their lifetimes. For those, like me, who are accustomed to leading in their workplace, church, and community, the change of pace caregiving demands can be disorienting and discouraging.
Learning to identify these changes and finding ways to flourish can bring needed vitality to the difficult work of caring for other people.
Recognize the nature and scope of caregiving work
Caregiving is difficult. Supporting someone else’s physical and/or emotional needs is a long process, often full of repetitive activities. For someone who is used to being in charge of others and setting the tempo of a team or project, adjusting to life at the pace of the person you’re caring for can prove quite a challenge.
My friend Julie, an attorney, had to quit her job last year to care for her teenage son after a tragic accident left him with debilitating physical injuries. Whereas her days used to be spent drafting important documents and facilitating legal conferences, these days Julie does a lot of housework, drives to doctor’s visits, and negotiates with insurance companies over the phone. While she’s grateful her son is alive and that they can afford for her to care for him, the long days of tedious tasks leave Julie longing for the fast pace and and intellectual rigors of practicing law. It’s been a tough adjustment.
As a caregiver, it’s important to recognize what we miss from our lives in the professional or ministry world and to acknowledge the differences between our previous experiences and the new contexts in which we are laboring. Realizing what parts of our former lives or vocations we truly miss can help us use what free time we do have effectively.
Practice saying no
The physical and emotional toll caregiving can take is high. It’s important to practice good self-care during seasons of acting as the primary caregiver for someone else. This includes basic things like rest and nutrition. It can also mean clearing your calendar of commitments and activities that leave you too tired or worn out to adequately care for yourself and your charges. In order to make space for the demands of caregiving, it’s critical to have clear boundaries around the parts of your schedule you can control. For example, if you find yourself caring for an aging parent who requires a lot of emotional energy, it may be time to step back from the emotionally charged work of leading a small group. At the same time, a season of caregiving doesn’t have to mean the end of leadership.
Create space to use your gifts
My primary places of leadership in work and ministry have been as an instructor, communicator, and group facilitator. These are the spaces where I feel called, valuable, and effective, and where I’ve spent time cultivating my skill set. After the first year of staying home with my children, I realized that although there’d be many facets to the professional world I’d left behind, it was these three areas that I missed most. I began to explore how I could engage this part of myself given the restraints of my duties in our family.
One obvious outlet for communicating and instructing in this season of at-home caregiving was writing. It’s an activity that I could do on my own schedule, working in writing sessions before and after bedtime and during times when my children napped. I also volunteered to lead a small group for a Bible study that offered childcare so I could practice group facilitation again. These seemingly small platforms for leadership were personally and spiritually invigorating, and ultimately opened doors to other opportunities, including speaking and teaching in other ministry settings and taking a part-time job at a church.
For many, part-time work or new ministry opportunities may not be desirable or realistic in a caregiving season. But finding ways, however small they may seem, to use leadership gifts can add a much needed element of balance to a life that has become focused on meeting other’s basic needs. My friend Julie, the attorney who cares for her disabled son, now serves on the board for a local charity group, allowing her a few hours each month to use her giftedness for administration, decision making and leadership. A fellow stay-at-home-mom recently took her love for crafts and created a course taught through the local recreation center for other women in her community. Utilizing community resources in the form of respite care, childcare swaps, and to ask for help when it’s needed made these opportunities possible.
If you had asked me a year ago if it would be possible for me to have a part-time job and a speaking and teaching ministry while acting as the full-time caregiver for my small children, I would have laughed. But God had other plans. As I stepped into positions of leadership, he opened doors to others. It all started when I carved out time to pursue my callings. No matter how small, leaders need to find places of leadership, even in caregiving seasons.