May 25, 2023

Caregiving Goes Both Ways

Beacon Stories

Eric Ringham is a retired senior editor at Minnesota Public Radio News, where he supervised arts and education coverage. Before joining the MPR staff in 2009, he completed almost 30 years at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, serving most of that time as commentary editor. Ringham also works part-time as a voice and stage actor. He and his spouse, Ann Wagner, live in south Minneapolis.

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By Eric Ringham

The term “caregiver” feels inappropriate when people use it to describe my relationship with my wife. If you call me a caregiver, you should call Ann a caregiver too. We take care of each other.

Ann is blind, yes, and I do things for her. If you are married, I bet you do things for your spouse too. If you are taller, you get things down from the top shelf. If you are the better cook, you make more of the meals. And if you’re the one with eyesight, you read the labels and sort the mail. Possibly you do most of the driving.

Dr. Ann Wagner and Eric Ringham

Ann M. Wagner, PhD, LP, ABPP and Eric Ringham

But caregiving can work in both directions. Just as I do things for her, Ann does things for me. She bakes and cleans and does laundry. She feeds the dog. She organizes our finances. She also works full-time (more than full-time, actually) and brings home more than her fair share of the bacon.  

In other words, like any successfully married couple, we share the day-to-day work of running our household, each according to our ability.

My biggest problem with the word “caregiver” is that it suggests a lack of balance in our relationship, as if one of us were  invalid. Sometimes Ann refers to me as her “sighted helper.” That term also suggests a lack of balance, as if I were a clever, well-trained dog. But I love dogs, so I don’t mind.

It’s also useful because it emphasizes my utilitarian role. If I’m accompanying Ann as merely a set of eyeballs with legs, it makes sense that I should be able to sit with her at professional conferences and  get in without paying.

By and large, we navigate the world pretty well. But I have a habit that bothers Ann. I keep offering help.

That may not sound like the kind of habit that imperils marriages, and it doesn’t imperil ours. But it does cause enough friction that we have to stop sometimes to make roadside repairs. 

From my point of view, this isn’t just about blindness. Are you old enough to remember the Anacin commercials of the 1960s that included the line, “I’d rather do it myself”? Nobody, sighted or blind, wants some old busybody hovering in the kitchen, cluelessly suggesting that the cook try using salt.

And when the cook is blind, that dopey suggestion takes on a ring of condescension. The busybody is implying that the cook doesn’t know what she’s doing. Or, worse, that she’s not capable of doing it.

I try to live by this rule: Help by not helping.

Self-sufficiency is Ann’s guiding value. If she asks for help, that’s one thing. Until she does, though, I’m supposed to respect that she probably has a plan. One that doesn’t involve me.

The trouble is, Ann’s guiding value sometimes conflicts with one of my own – namely, to be of service to the people I love. One day, early in our marriage, she remarked that she was thirsty. Immediately I was on my feet, heading to the kitchen.

Ann protested that she had not asked me for anything. “If you say you’re thirsty,” I said, “I’m going to offer you a glass of water.” Since then, “If you say you’re thirsty… ” has become our shorthand for not taking this self-sufficiency thing too far.

The way I was raised, you don’t wait to be asked for help; you simply help, because that’s what you would want others to do for you, and because it would be rude not to. The classic example that any Minnesotan would recognize is coming upon a driver stuck in a snowbank. You don’t wait to be asked; you just get out and push.

This past winter, we encountered one of our neighbors in just such a fix. I went to push, and soon Ann was jostling for a place alongside me, next to the stuck car’s spinning tires. I thought it was a risky place for her to be, so I yelled at her to move away.

“I can push!” she yelled right back.

I would never call Ann pushy, but yep. She can push.