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Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

I am a proud caregiver. I’ve had this role as an older sister and now, as a mother.

Without this important part of me, I don’t think I would have been able to connect with others in the way I have learned to over the years.

Wellness experts have emphasized self-care for years, but 2020 provided the world with a widespread appreciation of its significance.

Personally, it wasn’t until the past 4 years or so that I recognized how important it is to take care of yourself. In fact, it’s only in the very recent past that I would come to understand the importance of practicing it consistently. Thanks, global pandemic.

But there’s understanding, and then there’s practicing it. For caregivers like me, consistent self-care can be elusive.

I’m the mother of a boy and a girl on the autism spectrum. My girl also has an intellectual disability and requires many community supports.

At the height of the pandemic’s stay-at-home order, I contemplated how I would juggle my career and take care of my children while keeping my family and me safe. But I know I’m not the only one. This has been a concern for millions of other caregivers, too.

At one point during the pandemic, my husband and I were working full time while attending to our specific family needs.

This included facilitating online special education for our baby girl and telehealth sessions with doctors and therapists for both our children. This, of course, was done completely on our own, without any training in these spaces.

During this time, we were also expected to perform at the top of our games professionally.

Although always a caregiver, this new reality was a first for me. Before the pandemic, although life was hectic, there were regular opportunities to compartmentalize myself in specific roles. That allowed me to focus on the specific moment that role brought with it.

With the pandemic, however, I realized just how compartmentalization had died for me.

After weeks of having to do it all at once, I knew that if something didn’t change, my mental health would be jeopardized.

An added challenge for me was that, for a period of time, my children didn’t have the services they needed to thrive. Because of social distancing, many families like ours had to go at it alone.

For example, my daughter didn’t have access to all the support she needs. As the world adjusted to our collective “new normal,” I had a front-row seat to watching her regress. In about a 3-week period, she appeared to have lost the life skills she had gained during 3 long years of various therapies.

We eventually found a provider that offered in-home behavioral therapy for my daughter 5 days a week. In the meantime, our son attended remote learning for the academic year.

Given my family’s underlying medical conditions, it’s not hyperbole to say that my husband and I would have had to consider putting our careers on hold if it weren’t for the in-home therapy option.

As I write this column, I learn that my daughter might need some form of support, including different types of therapies, for the remainder of her life. She will likely not be able to live on her own.

For parents in my situation, the need for self-care to stay resilient in raising and advocating for our children is crucial. This is not only for our own well-being but for our family’s.

Yet, when a family confronts high levels of stress, self-care tends to become low on the list of priorities.

Take my case, for example. We’ve been experiencing the kind of stress associated with high medical bills or with the realization that your kid needs treatment from a specialist who may be either out of network or accepts only private pay.

This has made me realize that individuals who can consistently tap into the power of self-care can also provide their families with a legacy that will be felt long after they’re gone.

March and April of 2020 nearly brought me to my breaking point personally.

After taking time to process that, I knew it was time for me to customize self-care so that my family and I could thrive for the long term.

Traditionally, family caregiving can bring a noted contrast. On the one hand, it can fortify familial bonds. On the other, it can strain a caregiver’s physical and mental health.

According to research and surveys, the pandemic has indeed brought significant additional stressors on us.

Since the first stay-at-home order in the spring of 2020, news reports have reflected a mass workforce exodus of caregivers. Many of these caregivers have left their jobs to care full time for their children or ill family members.

The community support that many were used to has been near nonexistent during the pandemic due to physical distancing guidelines.

Caregiving in 2020

According to one 2020 study, the number of U.S. adults providing unpaid care to an adult or child with special needs has increased over the past 5 years from 43.5 million to 53 million.

Most family or informal caregivers are women — about 53 to 68% by some accounts before the pandemic.

Family caregivers, often juggling these duties with other obligations such as outside employment, have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consistent self-care must be customized to your own life, finances, time constraints, likes, dislikes, and realistic demands.

Some days, self-care can look like a 15-minute walk. Small bits of dedicated mindfulness can add up over time.

Other common examples of self-care can include:

  • getting enough sleep
  • getting a massage
  • connecting with community
  • being one with nature
  • keeping a gratitude journal

A more radical form of self-care can simply be connecting to other parts of yourself.

A parent mentor and a close family friend helped me answer a tough question years ago. This has become part of my self-care regimen today.

The question she plainly posed to me was, “Who were you before you became a mom?” The question was straightforward yet complicated.

When you are a long-term caregiver, this role can eclipse other parts of yourself.

While a very noble and important role, it has the potential to rob one of their full self if one is not self-aware enough to stay diligent.

A journey to self-discovery could reveal who you are outside of your caregiving duties and provide a renewed sense of identity that could be the antidote to burnout or feelings of loss, as has been the case for me.

It was during the pandemic that I remembered who I fully was. Wife. Mom. Attorney. Friend. Daughter. Sister. Content Creator. So, I started to look at the roles that I had tapped into the least to practice forms of self-care.

Weekly, I connect to some of those other parts of me through writing and podcasting about my life experiences, even if only for a small amount of time.

Connecting to other parts of you may look different in your case.

These forms of self-care help to reflect and renew the spirit. My small moments of mindfulness renew me in a way that I didn’t know I needed.

Self-care is a practice that needs to be habitual to be effective in the long term. Find your own way to give yourself grace and just start, however how small — one hour at a time.