When my parents’ marriage began to unravel, I was in 5th grade. I had always been a mature kid, but even 10 years old is pretty young to become a frequent caretaker of younger siblings, which is what happened when there weren’t two parents at home balancing responsibilities. Don’t get me wrong: my parents were far from negligent, but they were both single, working parents who often worked evenings – my dad as a pizza deliveryperson, my mom as a ballet teacher. I would take care of dinner and make sure my brother and sister did their homework and then put us all to bed (though I’d leave the hall light on because I was still scared of the dark). My mom often referred to my brother and sister as “the kids” when talking to me, a not-even-adolescent taking care of an 8- and 6-year-old.
Emotional memories from those rough patches still surface at times when I feel burdened by having to take care of the world, just like I had to take care of my siblings. I once questioned my desire to help people as a vocation. What if it’s the only thing I know how to do? What if I only want to help people because 12-year-old Chelsea learned that people weren’t going to take care of her own world, so she has to do it herself?
My mom and dad will probably tell you, “Yeah, but Chelsea was always like this, even before the divorce.” (And my brother and sister will probably tell you I always bossed them around.) I hardly let them parent me if I could help it! I wanted to figure out everything on my own. I never wanted to be dependent on anyone else. That urge still rings true in my life today, as if I could get anymore independent now as a 29-year-old woman.
My therapist once said that we’re given the lives we are so that we can become who we’re supposed to become. See, all of these things can exist simultaneously: I was born with a wildly independent nature, my parents had to make some difficult choices that dramatically shaped my childhood and, in turn, who I am today, AND I have a sincere desire to help as many people as I can while I’m on this planet. I don’t need to stop doing good things in the world simply because that desire happens to have a relationship with my emotional traumas.
As an activist and someone in the helping vocations, I am intimate with burnout. In fact, Burnout and I are doing a little dance as I write this. Yes, practicing self-care is crucial, but it’s precisely by doing my healing work in the world that brings to the surface the things within myself that need healing. Self-care and collective care begin to ebb and flow, neither happening just to or for me but also with me.