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Making It Work
Primary Caregivers: How to Juggle Family Responsibilities While Working
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If you're the primary caregiver for a child, an aging parent, or a family member with a disability, it can be difficult to juggle your caregiving responsibilities with work. You might have to leave the office during working hours to deal with an emergency or pick someone up. You might need to take time off to provide long-term care. You might also feel exhausted since between going to your office and taking care of your family member, you’re essentially working around the clock.

How can you cope with all your responsibilities, along with the mental and physical stress you’re probably experiencing?

What Is a Primary Caregiver?

A primary caregiver is someone who is responsible for an individual who is unable to take care of herself. This role is often used to describe an unpaid family member or friend who performs day-to-day tasks such as handling household chores and preparing meals and medications for an aging, ill, or disabled relative, but trained, paid professionals may assume this role as well.

What Is a Primary Caregiver to a Child?

Primary caregiver can also describe the parent of a child. Multiple parents or guardians can serve as the child's primary caregivers, although the term is more frequently used to describe the parent who assumes primary childcare responsibilities in the case of parents who don't live together. In custody disputes, this is often a factor in determining which parent will be awarded custody of the child.  

Why Is the Mother a Primary Caregiver?

The mother is not always awarded physical custody of a child in custody disputes. Judges take into account many factors to determine which parent is the most suitable for raising the child, such as who has been involved in day-to-day responsibilities such as making healthcare arrangements, preparing meals, helping with homework, and other tasks—essentially, who has been more involved with the child.

What Is a Secondary Caregiver?

A secondary caregiver may assume some responsibilities for individuals who cannot care for themselves, but these responsibilities are far fewer than those of the primary caregiver. In many cases, parents serve as co-primary caregivers to their children, while in others, a non-custodial parent or less involved parent may be more of a secondary caregiver.

What is primary caregiving in early childhood?

Primary caregivers' interactions with children help establish the bond early on. Interactions including playing, feeding, changing diapers, and other nurturing both establish the parent or other adult as the child's primary caregiver and aid her development.

Good caregivers need a healthy dose of patience, compassion, and dependability. Being responsible for someone else is difficult and stressful work, so you need to be up to the task psychologically and physically.

How to Balance Primary Caregiving and Working

If you're having trouble balancing your work life and caregiver duties, take the following steps. 

• Discuss the Situation with Your Manager

Before you assume your demanding boss won’t understand, have a conversation explaining your situation and asking for patience. It’s possible that your employer may already have procedures in place for this kind of situation, so read your handbook before you talk to your manager, so you’ll know what’s feasible and what you can expect from the conversation.

Be assertive. Ask for exactly what you need. Perhaps you want to be able to work from home one or two days a week. Or maybe you’ll need to leave an hour early some days. Explain how you expect your duties as a primary caretaker to impact your work, so there are no surprises.

• Know Your Rights and the Company's Policies

Your boss might be very understanding. If she’s not, and you anticipate problems arising, you might want to discuss the situation with your HR representative. There are some laws governing the treatment of employees with caregiving responsibilities, so investigate your particular situation and the legalities concerning it thoroughly.

Some companies, such as Adobe, proactively offer primary caregiver leave. Looking into your company's policy to find out what your options are before meeting with your boss or HR, so you can understand the terms and come to your meeting fully informed.

• Get Organized

Your situation may feel overwhelming right now, but adding some organization to your life will help you manage all your responsibilities. Set up a daily schedule for yourself, factoring in all your duties. Make sure to write it down, using a physical or online planner.

Develop a plan in case of an emergency. When you have children or a sick family member, not everything goes as planned, so it’s best to be prepared for when something unexpected happens. Have a list of numbers to call, and know on whom you can rely to take over at work or home if need be.

• Be Nice to Yourself

Nobody is Superwoman. Recognize that you’re in a difficult situation and that anybody would be stressed. Don’t berate yourself when something goes wrong, even if you think it’s entirely your fault. Things will go wrong, and taking it out on yourself won’t help anything. Plus, you’re going to be irritable if you’re constantly punishing yourself, and other people will notice.

Being nice to yourself also includes taking care of your health and well-being and getting a good night’s sleep. If you have a newborn or young child, this may be difficult, but do your best to sleep when you can, and take advantage of the times your child is sleeping to do the same.

Also, remember to take a break every once in a while. If you have a partner, sibling, or another family member, ask them to step in occasionally so you can have some time for yourself. Take a bath, read a book, or treat yourself to dinner. This can’t be a nightly ritual, but if you treat yourself very occasionally, you’ll be able to relax and relieve your tension—and you need it!

• Ask for Help

You shouldn’t have to do this alone. If you have a partner, discuss how you’ll divide up caregiving duties before the situation arises. While this is a natural conversation to have when you have a child, you should also prepare a plan if a family member moves in or any other scenario in which you find yourself serving as someone’s primary caregiver. If it’s your parent or another family member, don’t automatically assume you have to be the one to take care of her all the time. Discuss what your partner is willing and able to do as well.

Other family members may be willing to provide support as well. If you become the primary caregiver to an ailing parent because your sibling lives too far away, have a discussion about how she might be able to lend support. Discuss whether she might be able to visit on occasion or take on other responsibilities.

• Be Honest

Be open and honest about your situation with coworkers and friends. Some of them may be family caregivers themselves and be sympathetic to what you’re going through. They might be willing to offer you help and support as well. Colleagues especially might be able to cover for you at work on occasion or take over projects that are too demanding for your new schedule.

It’s important to ask for help when you need it. If you don’t, you may take on more than your physically and psychologically able to handle. Many people around you may be willing to help you out, but they might not offer it proactively; you might need to request it.

• Take Time Off

As per the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers are required to offer 12 unpaid weeks of caregiver leave for family and medical reasons within a 12-month period. This covers maternity leave and paternity leave. Many employers offer paid parental leave. Some employers also offer paid caregiver leave for employees with sick relatives.

If you feel that you’re unable to fulfill your work responsibilities while taking care of your family member, discuss the situation with your manager. Consider what you might be able to handle; for instance, you might work out an arrangement where you work from home some or all of the time. If that doesn’t seem feasible, discuss taking caregiver leave.

There is plenty of caregiver support available. What's most important is knowing when to ask and recognizing that you have resources—from child care services to laws governing the long-term care of sick family members—available to support you.

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