On Caregiving and Paradox: Growing Up to Be a Kid Again
“When I grow up, I want to be … a kid again!”
So proclaimed a t-shirt of a friend (and Vassar College housemate) of mine. I remembered it recently because of what I’ve been learning: that being a real grown-up means embracing the part of oneself that is — and always will be — a child.
Over the last two weeks, my husband and I have been on an extended ‘moving tour’. We relocated from DC to Alabama, but instead of settling into our new (old) house right away, we dropped off our furniture and continued on. Moving had its difficult moments: a tire shredded on our U-Haul as we merged onto a highway, we nearly lost vital documents, and we lived out of backpacks and generally felt displaced.
But those difficulties didn’t shape the trip. After coordinating the move, it was a blessing to be ‘kids’ again, with my husband’s parents looking out for us. They drove to DC to help us move, towed our trailer and hauled boxes, gave us good food and comfortable spots to rest. Their presence gave my husband time to gather strength after strenuous months at L’Arche, and it allowed us to transition gradually into our new life.
Caring for people with special needs L’Arche DC was, at least in part, what allowed us to accept their gifts with gratitude. While it’s true that caregiving can lead you to take on too much, it can also open you up to receiving care. Caregiving can allow you to see that, for all your capabilities, you, too, are a person in need. Supporting another person can help you to know your own vulnerability. And perhaps being taken care of by my husband’s parents set me up to offer a little bit of care myself.
After our initial move, we spent a week in Montgomery and a week at Lake Martin, arriving at the lake house (pictured above) for our annual family gathering. I’m from suburban New Jersey, where the most we’d do for the 4th of July was pile into the car and watch the county’s fireworks while eating ice cream, so the fact that people here shoot off fireworks themselves came as something of a shock. And their displays get better every year.
But an even better ‘display’ occurred before the fireworks that night. At the lake, I’d tried to be deliberate about being present and cultivating relationships, even as I took time to write and be alone. In particular, I treasured time spent with my cousin, who we’ll call AC*. She’s a third-grade girl, bright and passionate and funny and intense. And on the 4th, AC asked me about my work; what did I do? “I’m a writer,” I said. I get a shiver of delight every time someone asks me that question. And AC’s expression — eyes wide, face alight — was gratifying.
“Really?!” she exclaimed. “Wow. I love writing.”
I sat down next to her, and we talked. Or, more accurately, I listened. AC told me about the books she loved, and shared some of her poems as well. Some turns of phrase stood out to me; she definitely had a way with words.
She told me about the praise of her teachers, so I kept my words to a minimum, though I was excited by her talent. I don’t know much about writing, but I do know this: you must write for the love of it. If you do, your work will benefit others, but you cannot write for acclaim alone.
In that way, writing is akin to caregiving; you can’t just give care when you’ll be thanked for it. You have to give when no praise is forthcoming; you have to treat others tenderly even when you may not feel like it. So often, the feeling of love follows, and flows from, the act of loving.
Throughout the week, AC made me smile with her transparent enthusiasm. She reminded me a great deal of myself as a young girl, and in her company, I found myself longing to reclaim her unabashed manner. She didn’t hide what she truly loved, or the extent to which she felt her experiences.
Being with AC made me remember the young girl in myself, the one who conducted excavations in her backyard, who always had to be called to supper because she just couldn’t put down a good book, who felt passionately excited about going to summer camp each year.
Too soon, it was time to say goodbye. As I hugged AC, I said, “Keep writing.” It was all I needed to say; if she kept writing, the work itself would teach her what she needed to know. And then AC’s mother thanked me for spending time with her daughter, for listening, for caring. In fact, she said, AC had told her that, when she [AC] grew up, she wanted to be like me.
At once, I was overcome by paradoxical truths …
Receiving care had allowed me to give.
The girl I admired looked up to me.
Being vulnerable had made me strong.
All I could do was say, “Wow … that’s the nicest compliment she could have paid me.”
And inside, I added a prayer: May I live into it.
In what way might you be ‘a kid again’ this week?
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*Names have been changed.
About Caroline McGraw
I'm a would-be childhood paleontologist turned full-time writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. I grew up in New Jersey (think peaceful suburb, not Newark), graduated from Vassar with honors, then served as a live-in caregiver and program director at L'Arche Washington DC. Nowadays, my husband renovates our historic 1901 home in northwestern Alabama, while I try (& fail) to keep our cat Bootsie from developing an epic tuna fish addiction. It's a beautiful life. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.