My Dad and Me – From Selfless care, to Self-care

My Dad passed over aged 95. Our relationship began to form after Mum, his first wife, died in a road accident, months before my 21st birthday. The suddenness of the death was a tremendous shock for all of us, but especially Dad and I, with after effects that reverberated for decades. My first feelings for Dad after Mum died were sympathy and responsibility – albeit at a distance. I assumed the role of carer and dutiful daughter that continued until his death forty-seven years later. Over the years a co-dependency developed, where I – more often than not a single woman – wanted to be needed and chose to become the devoted, selfless, good, giving daughter to a man defined by his neediness.

He was self-absorbed, demanding, manipulative and expected others to take responsibility for him, which they usually did. He played on his physical disability from a World War II injury. He experienced nervous disorders, including anxiety, frustration and explosive episodes of anger. Though never physically violent, these episodes were used effectively when he didn’t know what else to do, or to get his own way. An emotionally immature man, he had tantrums when frustrated or bewildered with life. He was calculating. For example, whenever I visited him and prepared to leave, he cried, went into a rage, and became emotionally demanding. His default position in life and relationships was helplessness.

And yet another side to him – and one more often displayed to the outside world – was that of a mild-mannered, cheeky, cheerful, chappie, who loved to tell jokes. For those who lived with him, he was at times like Jekyll and Hyde and when his darkest moods descended, was clearly not ‘himself’.

In addition, throughout his life, he developed chronic ill-health conditions: heart disease, bronchitis, asthma, psoriasis and suffered a stroke. He also experienced depression and other mental ill-health conditions and was sectioned twice. Aged 87 and diagnosed with dementia, I was assigned to represent his best interests and support him for the last eight years until his death in a dementia care home.

Where was I in all of this?  

I was his co-dependent. He needed someone, anyone, to care for him and I needed to be needed by him. The relationship with all its tensions was an opportunity to spend time with Dad in his elder years. In his quiet moments, I loved to sit with him and very often we’d sit silently together. I loved being able to support him, his sense of humour and our trips out together.

But with attention polarised on Dad, I was distracted from my own life. Paying little attention to myself was a form of escape from facing my own inadequacies and hurts. I became secure and validated in my identity as the good, dutiful daughter, saviour and carer.

Although, we didn’t live together, over time the strain of trying to support someone who either refused to or was incapable of taking responsibility for himself could not be ignored. It was emotionally draining to be in his company – he took and took and rarely gave in return. He expected others to be his crutch and this was the role both his wives, brother and myself took on. Little did we know the trap we set up for ourselves as well as for Dad himself: running to rescue the so-called helpless in him condemned him to remain helpless and gave him no reason to be anything other than that.

The question is, why did I put up with this toxic relationship for so long? The simple answer is I didn’t know how not to.

I, along with millions of women around the world, are schooled as natural nurturers: our curriculum – how to care for, please and put others first.  Rarely, if ever, were we educated to equally nurture and love ourselves.

Without self-care and self-love, I was unable to recognise the abusive nature of the relationship. With self-love, I became dissatisfied with it and recognised that my reactions, my over-care and my sympathy fed his behaviours. I learned however, that though I couldn’t change him, I could change myself. Through a consistent programme of self-care I established a loving relationship with myself. I became an observer, not an absorber. This meant I could be with Dad, but not be affected by his behaviours. I continued to and did fulfill all practical responsibilities for him, without being responsible for his life. This came with a detachment that preserved my own well-being.

This awareness came late in life, but when it did, it transformed our relationship. It meant I accepted his choices in life and stopped trying to fix or make things better for him. I no longer sympathised. I stopped feeling guilty when I wasn’t with him, especially after his second wife died and later when he was in a dementia care home where my visits were monthly. His emotional outbursts no longer affected me; I knew it was the only way he knew how to be and to control others.

I was finally free because I chose to disentangle myself and no longer be manipulated by him. This released me to give him more love without expectation or judgement and in this way we became closer and genuine friends. His behaviour towards me began to change… less needy, more accepting when we said our goodbyes. As he moved into the more advanced stages of dementia, his behaviours changed again. He began to let go of behaviours that once defined him, became less manipulative and controlling. No longer was he a captive of anger bursts. Sometimes he knew who I was, other times not. He was still restless, but less so. His withdrawal from life became more pronounced as he totally surrendered to round the clock support received from full-time carers. This of course gave him what he always wanted – to be supported 24/7. I was his constant companion and accompanied him through end of life into death. It was a privilege to know that by this stage what was offered through me was a truer quality of love that supported him to pass over. Nothing left unsaid, no neediness, tears or sadness – only Love.

Our relationship was gold. It offered an opportunity to ditch existing narratives that undervalued and exploited women and family carers and replaced them with another which said first love, value and honour yourself as a woman/carer and you will be abundantly rewarded and resourced to support another fully, from within. Now I understand that tensions in our relationship were offered for me to transcend, not be subsumed by them. Once I understood that perceived difficulties with Dad were of my own making, I chose to do something about them. The moment I corrected my relationship with myself, learned to care for myself and responded differently to Dad, it healed our relationship

Caring for another must never be at the expense of ourselves.

True Care is when carer and cared for are equally valued. Never is one considered to be more worthy than the other.

1 thought on “My Dad and Me – From Selfless care, to Self-care”

  1. Beautiful expression about caring and what we can learn from each other in the process, and how much we also have a responsibility towards ourselves as carers. This article sensitively shows how when we take care of ourselves, and what caring brings up for us to look at, and then we realise what we need in that situation, there are no longer any ‘conditions’ on our caring, only love, allowing our loved-one and/or the person being cared-for to change their behaviour if they choose to. This feels like alchemy. Thank you for sharing.
    With love,

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