This blog was created to discuss the difficulties of being a male caregiver, especially when the person needing care is your spouse and a female. Clearly, if you look back through my published posts you’ll see that I haven’t written much about that topic, not that I haven’t spent a huge amount of time thinking about it. The problem in part is that this is a difficult topic — duh, of course, and, confidentially, I’m embarrassed to admit how little I know about a woman’s needs despite considering myself a well-versed, modern male who has had plenty of female friends and relationships (and even two marriages) over the years — I even have a female sibling who I will hereon refer to as my “sister.”
The other day, the problem came to a head when my sister, who was helping out for the weekend, declared that she had brought over some “Neutrogena naturals purifying facial cleanser” to the house because “women like to have their faces washed!”
No offense Sis, but I’m not sure if you meant that this particular product was especially nice for female face washing, or you were implying that I don’t wash J’s face regularly or correctly. I, of course, assumed the later, and, reluctantly, I admitted that I don’t wash J’s face either regularly or likely correctly. J has beautiful skin, and aside from an occasional wipe down and somewhat regular moisturizing with “Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion“, I try to do no harm. So, accepting that I had been put in my place, I now sit down to write about why being a male taking care of a woman is so hard. Note: This will be a lengthy ongoing discussion so right now I intend to highlight major areas and come back later with more details.
Women ARE from Venus!
If the person you care for is fully able to communicate their needs and desires, then you might want to skip the rest of the article. As a reminder; J’s speech and communication skills were directly impacted by her stroke so, while possible, she is often not able to tell me what she needs physically or emotionally. I have to rely on my knowledge of her behaviors, human nature, and what I learned raising a daughter– sadly, this many times isn’t enough.
Sure, there are obviously well understood physical and emotional differences between women and men, however, the devil is literally in the details, and unless you’ve grown up caring for a female body and psyche, you are not likely to identify or appreciate all the nuances. Let’s start a list of the trouble spots:
- Grooming — I apologize for the generalizations (throughout) but women require a level of grooming care that I’m just not comfortable with. Washing and caring for long hair, shaving underarms, legs, and other areas, moisturizing all over, and trimming and polishing nails are just part of the regular activities required to keep J looking and feeling her best. Now I’m not a grooming slouch but when faced with the actual tasks, I realized that this is tough stuff. Some things I ignore such as anything having to do with razors, some things I outsource to her girlfriends or salons like nails and hair, and the rest I just do my best and try not to embarrass her. I’ve gotten pretty good at creating ponytails. Oh, and I certainly need to mention the craziness of trying to brush and floss someone else’s teeth, and don’t forget the ear cleaning!
- Hygiene — Aside from normal grooming activities, women have a unique set of hygiene issues that men are poorly prepared to deal with — I call them the “3 P’s — Pee, Poop, and Periods.” This is the area where, excuse the pun, the rubber meets the road. Remember, J is bladder and bowel incontinent. Men are literally built differently and I, for one, have found it challenging even after 2+ years to know exactly how to deal with it all. The problem is a woman’s anatomy packs too many orifices too close together. Now I am very familiar with female anatomy being a normal straight male and having tended to an infant daughter, but adult feminine hygiene issues are a magnitude more complicated than I expected. There is so much to share about my experiences that I’m determined to explore it all in another post, so I’ll just leave you with two important pieces of advice. First, no matter the mess, wipe front to back! Second, urinary tract infections (UTIs) which are far more common in women than in men thanks to the proximity problem mentioned earlier can make a brain injury patient (or senior) appear to be crazy — yes, they can go from coherent to being on another planet in the blink of an eye. The first dose of antibiotic, once you figure it out, will reset it all to normal.
- Dressing — J has a lot of clothes. I am overwhelmed by the volume, the complexity, and the layering of her wardrobe. Thankfully she preferred a simple color pallet so there aren’t many combinations that would be awful. Of course, then there is what goes under the clothes. When I was in high school, I spent a summer working in my friend’s dad’s lingerie business warehouse unpacking bras being shipped in from Haiti. This made me incredibly knowledgable about bras and highly popular with girlfriends and their moms since I could purchase the bras for $10 each. However, when faced with actually putting a bra on a woman on a regular basis, I become a clumsy fool with ten thumbs. The only good news is that I’ve become proficient at how women remove their bra without taking off their shirt. Poor J has such a sorrowful look on her face when I’m fumbling around trying to get her bra on and off. ‘Nuff said. As for the rest of the dressing, I tend to stick to a comfortable wardrobe consisting of short and long sleeve tees, sweat and athletic pants, and shorts and sneakers — a far cry from how J dressed for her past corporate role even when working at home. When dressing to go out, I often rely on one of her girlfriends or my sister to help pick an outfit, deal with jewelry — don’t get me started on pierced earrings — and any finishing touches.
- Dining/Drinking — J’s stroke affected her swallow so she has some problems with aspirating liquids. Thankfully, she has no problem with solid food and has a good healthy appetite. When my daughter was an infant, I thought that feeding her was a nightmare. I would inevitably end up covered in baby food, as would she, and uncertain whether enough of it had made it into her mouth. It was a mess. Feeding J makes that look like child’s play. J’s ataxia and motor control issues make it difficult for her to use utensils and she tires quickly after trying to feed herself, so I take over. The first piece of advice is that soup, rice, and spaghetti are not your friends! I’ve tried forks and sporks and spoons and foons(?) but nothing works perfectly and there are many variants to choose from. Luckily, our 85 lb hound dog happily sits with her head in J’s lap waiting patiently for whatever falls. Oh wait, I’ve gotten off track from the theme of what’s makes women different … in the case of dining and drinking it all has to do with mixture and volume. I know a lot about J but I never really kept track of how she likes to eat her food or how much she eats and since I eat a lot and tend to mix all my food together on the fork, I regularly feel like I overfeeding J and mixing stuff together that she would never mix — thankfully, she will correct me at times.
- Intimacy — This is the section that has caused me to avoid writing this post for so long, not because I’m embarrassed or modest, but because I honestly don’t know what to say. We haven’t figured out post-stroke intimacy yet — sure, there’s hugging and kissing and hand-holding but venturing beyond that is difficult. I know there’s a desire on both sides but it’s hard for J to communicate what she wants and when — this can be hard even in normal relationships. And then there’s my sense that caregiving and intimacy don’t mix well. I’ve seen a side of J’s daily existence that is hard to push aside. Don’t get the wrong impression, I love and desire J and think she is an amazingly attractive woman. It’s simply that our daily activities are exhausting mentally and physically and it’s not easy to get into the mood. It’s kind of like when you have the best sex on vacation when you’re away from the day to day crap. I’m determined to explore this subject more with J and in future posts.
- The Art of Caring – I was brought up in an era when a common belief was that women are natural caregivers and men lack empathetic and tenderness skills. I don’t accept that as I luckily had a father who absolutely tenderly cared for my mother who was plagued with a variety of ills. Make no mistake, there are good caregivers, maybe even natural ones, and there are certainly poor caregivers but the distinction is not determined by gender. People regularly say to me, “this must be so hard for you”, with a tone that makes me feel as if they are actually saying, “you’re a guy, how can you know how to do this?” I sometimes feel the need to defend myself explaining that before all this, I was a self-sufficient person — yes I even iron my own shirts. My advice to both men and women is to not let stereotypes color your view of caregivers. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Well, I think that’s enough for now. I’m sure I forgot some things and I certainly didn’t get into the weeds on some of these subjects, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on these challenges.