How COVID-19 taught me to stop taking responsibility for others and start caring for myself

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By Samantha Williams

In mid-March, I left my apartment in New Orleans to quarantine in Alabama with my mom and youngest sister, Em. Em had come down with a serious unknown illness late in 2019, which we initially shielded from our widowed mother while we pursued a diagnosis. A sudden work trip, however, meant I had to ask for Mom’s help. One glance at Em’s swollen lymph nodes and 30-pound weight loss and Mom promptly took her to a doctor back home. As COVID unfolded and the need to lockdown somewhere became clear, we all packed into the house my dad built 30 years ago on a secluded wooded plot near Mobile.

I wondered how I’d arrived at this juncture, sheltering at home with my mother and sister instead of burrowing down with a family of my own. I was grateful to be with them; I’m very close to my family and I did not want to be alone for the shutdown. But I was also 35 years old, sharing a room with my sister and eating fried chicken at 10 am on my mother’s couch. That wasn’t the plan, and those early days of sheltering-in-place felt so permanent that I couldn’t see ahead to a time when I might have a family of my own.

I was also concerned that instead of my own children and my own life, I was burying myself in the intensity of trying to protect Em. I suffered intense grief and anxiety over her illness that went beyond what I thought a sister should naturally feel. Her life felt more important than my own. I knew something was off when I realized that the hardest part wasn’t even seeing her physical pain; it was my fear that if I didn’t perfectly intervene in her process — through prayer, by being more aggressive with the doctors and labs, or by finding reassurance somewhere on the internet — that she would die and it’d be my fault. It might be normal to feel this for one’s own child. But I had no child, just a sister that I was treating like one.

As the oldest of four, I was raised to do everything in my power to help my family. Unfortunately, I started believing that “my power” extended pretty far. I lost faith that people could fix things without me. I would wrap myself up in solving others’ problems until I lost perspective; my own needs disappeared and became unknowable, while the other person’s needs became my responsibility. This led to sleepless nights trying to keep everyone from going over the cliffs in their lives.

But something started to shift as we settled in. Mom took over mothering my sister, and watching her spring into action loosened my sense of responsibility for the situation. Mom sidelined me from the caretaking function and gave me supporting duties only: keep my sister company, make grits, wipe down the groceries. I was fortunate to work from home, which offered further escape during the day. I also walked outside and stared up at the trees that had sheltered me since I was a child.

The most profound change came the day Em was diagnosed with a serious but treatable disease. Suddenly, my sister was saddled with the lifelong management of an illness that she had little control over but complete responsibility for handling. Every step going forward would be hers to make, and her choices and outcomes would be completely out of my hands. The illusion that I had any control over her fate fell away. In its place was finally trust; trust that she could run her own life and that I would still be loved and valued even if I wasn’t the all-powerful big sister who could fix it all.

Back in New Orleans, I am figuring out what it means to be responsible for myself and myself alone. That is a true gift of singleness and childlessness that I don’t intend to squander any further. The other gift is that of receiving love outside of obsessive caregiving. I do still want my own family, but I have abundant sources of love in my life right now that aren’t dependent upon me making myself indispensable. I saw this at home when I leaned on my mother for support and comfort for the first time in years. I am exploring love for and of myself without the expectation of control for the first time in my life.

Samantha Williams was born in Daphne, Alabama, and currently resides in New Orleans. She spends her days working with educators around the world to increase gender equity in their classrooms and communities. You can follow her writing at samantha-williams.com.

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