Taking a forced break from my normal life of hanging out with babies and their parents, I’ve recently chalked up some personal experience being helpless, thanks to the need for some major orthopedic surgery. My recuperative slow-down has given me time to think about my attitude toward dependency.
Unlike babies and other people with limited ability to meet their own needs, I had only a day or two of total helplessness, when I couldn’t walk on my own and needed help getting to the bathroom, and to be brought food, drink and medicine. While I like to think it would be my honor to help someone else in my state, I have noticed myself being frustrated and a little embarrassed to need so much help. Why is it so uncomfortable to be dependent?
I know my feelings about dependency are at least partially influenced by the fierce independence touted as the Pioneer Spirit. I’m from Oklahoma, and actually do come from pioneers, covered wagons, the whole thing. And I had a grandmother who basically stopped eating (I say she “died” herself) when she came down sick at 91 because she couldn’t face being dependent on strangers in her old age, with all of her grandchildren living in other cities. (Lots of guilt on my part about that.)
Around the time my grandmother died I began to notice how families from cultures unlike my own had completely different attitudes toward people who are dependent, babies and elders alike. With children, they didn’t seem in a hurry for their babies and toddlers to be so-called independent; it was assumed that adults would help them whenever they asked for help…and sometimes when they didn’t. They didn’t expect toddlers to feed themselves, for instance, or climb the jungle gym all by themselves. (Don’t get me wrong; I still support independent climbing as a safety issue!)
I also noticed that a lot more of them got help with childcare from the grandparents than I did, because it was assumed that the parent-generation needs help, too. And the elders often lived with or near their grown children and grandchildren. I began to see where independence and individualism had been taken to extremes, with each generation in my sub-culture having to fend for themselves too much.
I began to appreciate the concept of interdependence, a much more free-flowing perception of what a person should be able to expect from intimate family members and society (Gonzalez-Mena, 2008). Babies are not seen as a burden for their dependence who must be hurried along to self-sufficiency, and neither are their great grandparents seen as an undue drain on the family.
I appreciate how this new way of seeing has tempered my work with families. I remember seeing a little Latina in my class go to help another child up who had fallen down. She knew to do this because it had been modeled by her adults. People take care of each other, no matter what their age.
So, I’ve been thinking about what made it tolerable for me to revert to utter dependence during my post-surgical period. And I’ve realized it’s precisely the same things that I promote in my work with people who care for infants, the Educaring® Approach that gives them a positive attitude about themselves and life in general.
These things apply to all manner of caregiver, no matter the age of the recipient:
1. Always remember that you, too, have been dependent in the past, and will be again.
2. Surrender your typical speed of action and give care mindfully at a pace that is comfortable to the other person. In a nutshell, slow down (Gerber, 2012).
3. Pay attention to the expressions and body language of the person you are caring for and notice when they need help, or when they want to do things themselves.
4. Invite their participation; scaffold their potential for independence without pushing.
5. Know your own limits. If you feel truly burdened by the other’s needs, seek help. Your sighs will transmit negative, life-stealing messages to the one who needs you.
6. Be a cheerful giver; playfulness makes dependence less scary and shame-inducing.
I’m almost back to normal, and thanks to my nurses, my husband and my friends I have been able to get through times that were scary, painful and undignified with my self-confidence pretty much intact. And it graphically reminds me that we all need each other.
Dependency doesn’t end at kindergarten, graduation, or “launch.” Dependency spirals back on us throughout our lives, and we all need to care for each other.