I’d got no further than taking off my coat and turning on my laptop when my desk phone rang – it was my mom. “Charlie? I’m so sorry. Oh, Charlie. I don’t know what to do.”
This was the woman who always knew what to do. The 70-something who thought nothing of digging the garden by moonlight; who strode out excitedly on a windy day to photograph the sky, the trees, the ships. My mother was a proud lady so she rarely asked anyone for help. She had never, in her words, “disturbed” me at work before. Exactly how serious was this going to be?
It was an emergency. Mom had fallen – in her bedroom, of all places – and somehow she’d gotten herself downstairs to her phone before nearly fainting with the pain. It turned out that she’d broken the top of her femur, an injury that would have lasting complications. And so began a new way of life for both of us. Just as Mom was forced to face her vulnerability and dependence, I discovered how unprepared I was for the overwhelming emotional and practical impact of having a parent who needed care.
My boss was supportive, my colleagues were concerned, and my projects survived thanks to the team’s care. I was very lucky. But I was operating in a haze, thanks to the almost daily dash, after work and at weekends, to visit Mom. I was also on a steep learning curve, trying to make sense of, and coordinate, the complicated medical and social care that was available for her (or not) from a mishmash of agencies.
As time went on, we all adjusted. Other members of the family pitched in, the pressure lessened, my mom stopped fighting her fate and started working out strategies to cope mentally and physically, and I refocused on work. I agreed back-up plans with relatives and colleagues so I wouldn’t be caught out so badly again. But I always had a niggling worry: what nasty surprise would come next and how would we all manage?
My experience taught the whole team a lesson: we realized how vulnerable we were to life’s unpredictable events. So I suggested that we cross-train in each other’s areas of responsibility. My manager was only too pleased, recognizing that we’d be better prepared for the next time any of us needed to disappear. And everyone benefited from the development opportunity.
We might pride ourselves on being professionals who compartmentalize our lives so well that “domestic” issues are kept at home and we can “sail on” at work, untouched. But that is an unrealistic approach for both employer and employee. We are complete human beings who experience all of life at once and, I believe, this is as much our strength as our weakness.
My experience of caregiving was short-lived and almost trivial compared with millions of women and men. My respect is greatest for those staff who are part of the “sandwich generation,” caring for parents and children. The people who I know in this position are experts at juggling their responsibilities and are often the most efficient at work. But don’t despair: if you’re a carer and find yourself struggling, some of these practical tips will help.
I went on to contribute my energy, brainpower and people skills to my workplace for several more years and earned a promotion before it was finally time to move on. None of this would have been possible without my employers’ longsightedness and commitment to me, for which I will always be grateful. In fact, it was exactly because I felt so valued that I did stay so long.
If you’re a manager of a caregiver, and are doubting the sense of sticking with him or her, take a look at our tool designed for you. You’ll find there’s loads of ways to make an otherwise tricky situation really work for you, your whole team, and your business. It’ll be worth it.
Question: What tips do you have for combining work and caregiving responsibilities? Share your views and experiences in our comments section below.