We’re born to be nurtured.

Unlike most of the animal kingdom, little humans begin life utterly dependent on their caregivers. In a perfect world, we’re raised by loving and caring parents supported by their whole community – it takes a village to raise a child. Perfection is a rare commodity.

As a child, my basic needs were met. Routinely. Always. More than adequately. We were fed and clothed and housed and educated. I grew up in a white middle class family, in a wealthy democratic country, and was afforded all the privileges that come with these opportunities. I grew up with free health care and education, and lived a life free from physical abuse and significant grief. Fortunate indeed compared to millions of people the world over.

I have never felt nurtured though. Cared for as a child – yes. Loved as an adult – yes. Privileged and wanted, desired and needed – yes. But nurtured – no. I have no recollection whatsoever, of being hugged by my parents as a child. Nobody ever said, “I love you”. Not once. It just wasn’t done. My grandmother says we weren’t a demonstrative family. We most certainly were not.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, I asked her why I was never hugged. She said it was because I didn’t want to be hugged. I am still mystified by that statement… Sure I was a feisty, difficult, argumentative, hyperactive and highly inquisitive child. But I was a child. I also wanted to be loved and nurtured and cared for and noticed. For someone to accept the way I looked and spoke and acted – just once. For someone to express pride at my successes and strengths – just once. For someone to gently and lovingly guide me when I got things wrong, without berating me and making me feel inept, inadequate and stupid – just once. It never happened. My job as a child was to grow up independently and be responsible. To look out for my younger brother and sister and to look after my mother. To be her little helper. To be a grown up at ten. I was raised as a mini adult and never afforded the spontaneity and freedoms that come with being a child free from adult expectations.

To me, there is a fine line between feeling cared for (I did) and nurtured (I didn’t). Perhaps it is semantics – I don’t know. Perhaps I have the terminology incorrect. Possibly. I’ll try to enunciate how they feel different to me.

When I feel cared for I know I am needed – that I would be missed if I were gone, or that my welfare is of importance to others. As a child, I know I was cared for because my family fed me and housed me and didn’t complain about my existence. They cared enough to raise me with strong morals and ethics, and to allow me certain privileges and freedoms. I was fed nutritious foods, had educational opportunities, and given holidays and gifts.

As an adult, I feel cared for when a friend sends a message to say, let’s go for a walk. Or my husband brings me a cup of tea in bed. Or my kids bring me a birthday present. They care enough to remember me. They care about me.

Feeling nurtured is so much more. To feel nurtured, I need someone to put my needs ahead of their own. To make a decision when I don’t know what to do. To care for me when I can’t care for myself or love me when I can’t love myself. To let me know I really matter and that I’m okay just the way I am – I don’t need to change or be thinner, stronger, prettier, sexier, wealthier, smarter, more capable. More of anything else at all. That I am lovable right now, as is. It’s not about cups of tea – it’s about knowing I’m thought of when I’m not in sight. It’s surprising me with a visit to the movies, a night out, or a trip away. Talking despite being too tired to talk. Walking despite being too tired to walk. It’s seeing I’m too sick to care for myself and making decisions for me. Staying up all night when I’m throwing up or in pain. Buying flowers despite running late for an appointment. Getting me a birthday present I’ve always wanted. Prioritising me over absolutely everybody else’s needs – just for a moment. Not forever. Not most of the time. Not regularly. Just very, very occasionally. When I’m in emotional, psychological or physical distress. When I’m tired and worn out from caring for everyone else. Just very, very occasionally, I need to feel nurtured.

I have spent all my adult years caring for others – my siblings, my parents, my grandmother. My husband, my children, my cat. My students. My colleagues. Friends and acquaintances. I always feel it’s the right thing to do – whatever you need, I will do it for you. I’ll be a listening ear, the shoulder to cry on, the voice of reason. I’ll drive you to the hospital or airport. I’ll hang with you when you need company. I’ll give you space when you don’t. Above and beyond the call of duty is my ever-present motto. Not because I have to, but because I want to. It feels good to do what feels right. But there came a time last year when I’d relentlessly cared for everyone for so long, that I lost sight of myself. I wore myself out and couldn’t care for myself any more.

What I realised as I fell apart, and those who really care for me started pulling together and supporting me, was that I enjoyed feeling cared for. I enjoyed feeling supported. And wanted. And loved. I enjoyed having people try to help me and meet my needs. My family and friends. The doctors and mental health professionals. The nurses at the clinic who listened with all the time in the world as I grieved for my mother and sister, and checked to see if I’d eaten, slept well, been for a walk or gone to a class.

Recently it occurred to me that enjoying this support is keeping me stuck and hindering my recovery, because I fear that if I get well I’ll be left to be the strong one again. That nobody will demonstrably care for me anymore. If I’m well, I’ll be needed to support everyone else and they won’t need to support me anymore. And I will miss it – I’ll miss feeling loved and nurtured and cared for. When I’m unwell, people show they care and they want to help me and they’ll do whatever it takes. And when I’m well they’ll go on their merry way and the sense of nourishment to the soul will go away.

That is what I fear. I will return to knowing intellectually I’m loved and cared for, but there will be precious little evidence. The expectation I can look after everyone will return. And I will do it because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t resent it – I do in fact enjoy caring for others. But we all have limits. Sometimes I need to care. Sometimes I need to be cared for. Sometimes I nurture. Sometimes I need nurturing.

My recovery is important – I’m still in the very early stages. But this realisation, feels like an important aspect of my recovery. I will always care for others. But I also need a little bit of nurturing occasionally.

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