You Don’t Have to Be Selfless to Be a Good Mother


“Caregiver” and “caretaker” are words that are often used interchangeably because they basically have the same definition. Both caregivers and caretakers provide care and support to other people (like, say, children). Where they differ, however, is how they care and support those people — their motivations and approaches. And, as you’ll see, they differ in the health and stability of their relationships.

Realizing whether you’re a caregiver or caretaker can be a big wake-up call. This might be hard to distinguish when our kids are very young and our responsibilities are so sky-high and all-encompassing, but as you read on, you’ll be able to recognize yourself — maybe in the way you were raised, or in the way you relate to your husband or your parents or your siblings. And you can be pretty sure that, unless you make some changes, you’ll eventually repeat the same patterns with your kids.

In general, caretakers care for people at the expense of themselves, and they often go above-and-beyond to care for others in ways that those people can and should be caring for themselves. Caretakers love so much, so fiercely, that they tend to help without being asked to help. They want to fix, fix, fix … rescue, rescue, rescue.

Signs you might be a caretaker type:

  • You were raised to believe that selflessness as a mother and wife is a measure of “goodness.”
  • You often do for others what they’re capable of doing for themselves. (Like calling your child’s high school teacher to explain or make excuses.)
  • You find yourself excusing or justifying other people’s bad behavior.
  • You get involved in things that aren’t your business.
  • You have a hard time saying “No,” and often overextend yourself to help others.
  • You know how other people should be living their lives, and you aren’t afraid to say so.
  • You speak for your kids instead of letting them speak for themselves.
  • You take care of/feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems.
  • You have a hard time knowing what you think, feel, want, and need.
  • You have control issues.

Here’s the thing about parenting in the caretaker way: Chronically jumping in and solving problems doesn’t encourage self-sufficiency or confidence in our kids. Caretaking infringes on our children’s boundaries and doesn’t enforce our own boundaries enough, either. Caretakers often end up exhausted, overly stressed, and totally burnt out because they take on all of the responsibilities (not just physically, but emotionally) without adequately caring for their own needs and wants. Caretaking also enmeshes us with the people in our lives, creating dependent relationships, masking our low self-worth, and feeding our need for control. It’s helping in a needy way. It’s careTAKING.


CareGIVING, on the other hand, is love balanced with knowledge. It’s a kind, reasonable, loving approach to relationships that doesn’t compromise our wellbeing. Caregivers know that they aren’t responsible for how other people feel or think, and they can see the line between other people’s problems and their own. They don’t feel victimized, angry, or resentful after agreeing to help. Caregivers are nurturing, not smothering.

Signs you might be a caregiver:

  • You understand that the best thing you can do for your kids (and all of your loved ones) is to be your healthiest self.
  • You take time to address your own needs and wants, and practice a healthy amount of self-love.
  • You don’t incessantly worry about things you have no control over. Instead, you take action where and when you can.
  • You respect other people’s boundaries and don’t impose your opinions, advice, and help without being asked.
  • You have relationships where both people give and receive. You expect nothing less.
  • You let people face the consequences of their behavior, even when it’s painful to watch.
  • You give and help from your heart, without strings attached.
  • You don’t blame your kids for making you mad or sad. You take responsibility for your feelings.
  • You understand that you only know what’s best for YOU in the long run. When it comes to other people, you keep an open mind and open heart.

This is probably where I should come out and admit that I definitely have caretaker tendencies, as much as I intellectually and instinctively want to lean more toward the caregiver end of the spectrum. And that’s the thing, here. Most of us land somewhere on a spectrum, rather than firmly in one camp or the other. Most of us need to make conscious choices to take care of ourselves as much as we take care of others, and to not repeat the cycles set in place by our own childhoods and surrounding culture.

Finding a healthy balance is tough. But if we’re conscious of our behaviors and patterns, and we’re conscious of the way we want to love and nurture, we can make better habits and lead healthier lives.

It all comes down to a choice: Do we want to be caretakers or caregivers?

Note: If you strongly identify as a caretaker, you might also be interested to learn more about codependency as a parent.

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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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