This is an excerpt from Caroline McGraw’s book for caregivers, Your Creed of Care: How to Dig for Treasure in People (Without Getting Buried Alive). To receive your complimentary copy of the book via email, visit Caroline’s blog for caregivers, A Wish Come Clear.
Pitfall #7: Holding On
I’m not a parent, so I can only imagine how difficult it must be: letting a babysitter watch your kids, letting them go off to school, to college, to the wider world. Add to that a child with a physical or intellectual disability, and the letting-go gets even more difficult.
To let go, to trust another person with your child or sibling? It may seem impossible. Yet, it’s also extremely valuable, both for you and the person you love and care for.
I remember riding with my parents the first time we dropped my younger brother Willie, who has autism, off for a respite weekend. He’d be spending two days with a group in a local hotel, going to game nights and swimming in the pool. I knew that Willie would have a great time. Even so, I felt a rush of protectiveness and near-panic as he exited the car.
I kept feeling a need to check on him, to make sure he was all right. I could tell that my mom felt this need even more than I did. Though she’d met the staff and talked to my brother extensively and prepared long lists of Willie’s routines and double-checked his food, clothes and medication supplies, she still felt anxious.
She’d done all she could, but it all felt so insignificant as he disappeared from our sight. We all wanted to hold on to him as we drove away.
After that experience, I understand why one woman I know literally left the country after her brother came to L’Arche (a faith-based non-profit organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community, where I served as a caregiver for five years). She knew that, if she stayed within driving distance, she’d be sure to meddle with his care.
As my mother did for my brother, this woman made extensive preparations to ensure that her brother would be well cared-for. However, when the moment to let go of her brother’s care came, she felt a strong temptation to hold on.
I’ve met other families who have held on to their children tightly over the years. They continue to treat their adult sons and daughters as children. These parents are holding on to their role as primary caregivers, even as their sons and daughters are trying to make a new home and new life for themselves.
It’s always difficult to watch this dynamic, and even more challenging to be a care provider in the middle of it. The adult child in this situation has a choice: they can either rebel against their parents’ holding on, or comply with it…and feel guilty for feeling stifled. Most people choose the latter.
To parents, it can seem as though holding on in this way will keep their child safe. When I watched my brother walk into the hotel, I wanted nothing more than a promise that he would be all right. I wanted a guarantee, even though I know better. There are no guarantees. We can only know that, by holding on too tightly to those we love, we are not loving them as we should.
As Martha Beck writes in Steering By Starlight: “The goal of real love is always to set the beloved free.”
We cannot wait for a time when we feel perfectly safe to open our hands.
Caroline McGraw is a would-be “childhood paleontologist” who digs for treasure in people. She writes about finding meaning in your most challenging relationships at A Wish Come Clear.