Thinking woman. Sad lonely depressed girl sitting on the laptop. Young unhappy woman hugging her knees. Online psychotherapy. Cartoon character. Vector illustration in flat style

Who cares? When picturing a caregiver, the person who comes to mind is almost invariably female. She is young (or young-ish). She looks healthy. She is usually in a uniform, the kind associated with nursing, to show that she is what she does. And she is never pictured alone, because what she does – caring – is defined by the relationship she has with the other people. In advertisements, textbooks and news reports, this ‘carer’ is pictured standing alongside a ‘cared-for’ person, who is usually seated and smiling up at their caregiver with gratitude. The carer smiles down upon them, reassuringly. Theirs is an asymmetrical relationship: the cared-for is vulnerable and has needs, while the carer is capable and needless.

I have felt burdened by the asymmetry of care. When I’ve become a caregiver in the past, on cancer wards in London and Cambridge, my vulnerability didn’t magically fly away. Yet the figure of the needless carer followed me. And it continues to dominate the ways we view those who care. But as we look longer at this figure, questions emerge: what might this carer need? What of her vulnerability?

I asked my husband if it was helpful to have me with him. He said he didn’t need me but knew that, if I couldn’t see him, I would be more frantic, so it was better to have me here, for my sake. I became his vulnerable carer.

‘Vulnerable carer’ or ‘vulnerable caregiver’ is not a phrase you hear very often. But I’m not the only person to use it, or to be described by it. According to the authors of a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002, 36 per cent of surveyed caregivers were ‘suffering from poor health’ or had ‘a serious health condition’. They were vulnerable, too. But often their vulnerabilities are left out of the picture.

During the months of chemotherapy, when my husband’s treatment was at its most intense, and he was at his most debilitated, I managed things: I watched, I listened, I bought food, I served food, I fetched drinks, I took the bins out, I kept the house antiseptically clean, I chased prescriptions, I supported our son through his GCSEs, and sorted out my mother-in-law’s financial affairs. I left the room when my husband was obviously fed up of being watched. In other words, I cared, but when I measured myself against the figure of the needless, reassuring carer, I always felt that I came up shamefully short.

Using the term ‘human giver’ coined by the philosopher Kate Manne, Wincer describes the figure of the needless carer as obligated ‘to give their whole humanity’, the point being that you cannot both give your humanity and be it at the same time. In reality, as Wincer’s title suggests, we can be only imperfect givers, because humanity, with its needs, its vulnerabilities and its faults, is not something of which we can ever be fully emptied. A carer, says Wincer, need never be ashamed of needing care. And yet, we are. I was. Why is it so hard to learn to care and need care?

Read more in Psyche.

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