Calling myself a carer feels like a paradox to me, because I do not think I am as dutiful as I ought to be. I let my duties slip, often: making appointments for my mum and cooking daily (not to mention ordering takeaway late at times).
I can be argumentative, so I constantly need Allah’s forgiveness. And I can be impatient when the symptoms of my mum’s mental health challenges rear her head. Thus, it feels dishonest to call myself a carer when I am inconsistent in providing good care to my mother.
But I want to take you on my complicated and incomplete journey to accepting that I have come to caring responsibilities. I am still on this journey, hence why I am still reluctant to say I am or was a carer.
When asked as a child, I was semi-helpful around the house. But when my mum began to suffer from severe depression in my mid to late teens, my siblings and I stepped in to support the household.
Earlier, I had helped with housing admin and job centre searches, as my mum cannot read. My brothers worked numerous shifts to support us financially, and I helped with household duties such as grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I was experiencing considerable stress as I neared my AS-level education.
During one instance, while I was carrying groceries, a friend noticed that I was in tears. Sensing my distress, he confided in his mother, who worked at my school. She kindly urged me to seek help and converse with our school’s safeguarding officer.
The safeguarding officer asked what had been going on at home. When I described the complicated home situation, he responded by saying, “It is quite normal to help out around the house.” He said it would be concerning if I were an 11-year-old with these responsibilities, but he didn’t feel I needed safeguarding because I was older.
He flatly asked, “Do you want us to deal with this, so you won’t have to take your exams?” I replied, “The only reason I am talking to you is because I was asked to and because I am afraid my mum’s mental health will get worse and eventually throw herself off a bridge.”
By saying this, the officer offered practical support by contacting my mum’s doctor. However, his saying before this, “Well, it’s not like your mum is chasing you around with a knife,” caused me to shut down for several years about my home life as it made me think I was selfish and ungrateful.
The summer following my last exams was a difficult one. I was torn between staying at home for university while continuing to help look after my mum or moving out to cope with my declining mental health. I knew I should uphold the rights of parents, and thought moving out betrayed this principle.
One of the advantages of opting to continue studying was that I had a Muslim English teacher who supported me throughout the ups and downs. She said that guilt was a better feeling than regret or resentment, which she thought I would feel if I stayed at home or took time off university to support my mum.
Although attending university had challenges, nothing was more challenging than dealing with my guilt at leaving my mum behind. When I decided to get help through counselling, I learned I am a carer, albeit not benevolent. My first counselling experience was cognitive behavioural therapy, which focused on how my thoughts and feelings affected my actions and how I could reframe those thoughts.
I also received on-campus counselling, which became a venting session about friendship drama. Nonetheless, I felt like I was beginning to work on myself in a way I couldn’t at home.
During lockdown, I had 12 weeks of counselling from Black Minds Matter – a charity dedicated to providing mental health support to black people, recognising how race can interact with various mental health challenges.
Having a black therapist meant I had someone who could relate to the challenges of immigrant families, like navigating bureaucracy when new to learning English.
My therapist understood and respected the boundary between thoughts that could be challenged and ideas that were not necessarily harmful but formed part of my Muslim identity. For example, I want prayer to be my primary response to stress rather than other coping mechanisms or being conscious of sounding critical of my family.
However, when I described my mum’s situation to my therapist, she said I was a carer. I shared my experience with the safeguarding officer when I was at school, and she deftly handled this experience. She tried to understand why I didn’t see myself as a carer, and I said it was because it conferred virtues I did not have.
I am not a devoted daughter who prioritises my responsibilities and does them with fidelity or to the detriment of my social life. I would prioritise going out and ordering food instead of just cooking it and meeting my friends later than initially planned. Not only that, but I was late, lazy, and not caring for my mother as I should have been.
So ultimately, I felt like a fraud in saying I was caring. The comments from my safeguarding officer also echoed in my mind: I was safe in my household. So why was I so temperamental about doing what were quite basic chores?
There wasn’t an epiphany. There was a gradual acceptance that I was allowed to be stressed by things. Normal adults get worried about bills or cannot be bothered to cook, especially after coming home after a long day of school or work. I realized that if I did not serve my mother a home-cooked meal, it didn’t mean I was a bad daughter.
Just because I was living at home with my mum didn’t mean I had no right to feel stressed by responsibilities that often felt so burdensome. Gradually, I am learning that I am not the wrong person for finding this situation hard.
Before, I thought it meant I didn’t care enough about my mum and was not remaining obedient to the parent who gave me everything. This axiom also led to an intensified religious guilt that I am not the pious child I wish my mum could have.
This journey is complex, and I am unsure what sits on the other side of acceptance.
Nonetheless, I know that I would not be on such a journey without my mother’s love, the support of my friends or the trust my therapist built with me. My therapist allowed me to understand the concepts of duty and family and how they can obscure circumstances.
I hope this process will enable me to one day advocate for children and young adults who take on the role of being carers.