Last week I wrote about how female caregivers are affected by the role reversals that take place as they care for husbands with chronic illness. As the husband’s illness progresses, and he is able to do less and less for himself, his wife ends up doing more. And, as she continues to take on the traditional male roles, her loss of femininity may escalate. When this happens, it is reflected in how she cares or perhaps in how she stops caring and taking care of herself.
Self-care, so vital for a caregiver, can often just go by the wayside. It may start with being too tired at night to even wash your face and do your usual skin care routine. And though you know you should take care of your skin, you may begin to wonder who will care what you look like anyway. There is no one you need to look good for anymore. Your spouse no longer seems to notice and even if he does, intimacy and care giving really don’t coexist well. Of course you should do it for yourself. You know you will feel better if you look better, but somehow it doesn’t seem worth the effort. You can no longer remember the last time someone told you how nice you looked or even noticed that you got a haircut. And so, for many caregivers the downward spiral of self-neglect has begun. The more they are expected to be “the man of the house,” the less they see the need to treat themselves like women. The less they take care of themselves the worse they feel about themselves. The worse they feel, the less they care and so on. Many stop wearing make up. Why bother dressing up when you’ll only get dirty and no one will notice anyway? Why exercise? Why see a doctor? Why eat right?
For some women, this cycle serves another purpose. Lonely in their marriage yet committed to the relationship, looking your worst is self-preservation. Several well spouses told me that they wouldn’t trust themselves if a man showed interest. Though they would never consider cheating on their ill husbands, they know the temptation would be great and are not sure of their own self-control. Making yourself unattractive is part of that self-preservation.
For other women it is a way of hastening the inevitable. Many well spouses know that they will probably not outlive their husbands. Statistically, caregivers on average predecease their spouses at a much higher rate than the general public. Some have actually told me that their neglect of their health is their cowardly way of speeding things up. It’s the only way they have of getting out of the situation.
There are some things, we as friends and relatives of caregivers and even spouses can do to change this attitude and it has a lot to do with treating a female caregiver as a woman. Noticing and complimenting, even if you have to search to find things to compliment, may help the female caregiver get back on track. Friends offering to do the heavy tasks that are traditionally male, like carrying heavy packages or helping with repairs or shoveling a car out of a snow bank may help many feel like a women again. But what makes a woman feel like a woman is very individual and very personal. For many of us, the feeling of femininity comes when we feel thought about or taken care of. Sending cards and flowers for special occasions or for no reason at all may also help. But in the end, no matter what outsiders do to help female well spouses regain their femininity it is never as effective as when their husbands take the time to care for them. By simply pressing the button of the automatic car starter and telling his wife that he wants to warm the car for her, a husband, though ill and disabled, can make his wife feel thought of and cared for. Holding the umbrella in the rain to keep you and your wife dry while she pushes your wheelchair could go a long way to giving back the feeling of femininity that the illness has stolen. Having flowers sent requires only a phone call and a credit card, something many chronically ill husbands can still do. That simple act will give most husbands more credit with their wives then the cost of the flowers. It will also give the wives more positive feelings about being a woman and the wife of this man.
Maybe the best way for outsiders to help the well spouse feel feminine again is to encourage and assist the ill partner in doing all in his power to care for and demonstrate that he is thinking of his wife as she cares for him.