For many families, caregiving duties automatically fall to women. According to an AARP study, most caregivers are female. But the same study showed that more men are starting to take on the caregiver’s role. That’s good news on the gender equality front. But if things are getting fairer, there’s still progress to be made. And to put it plainly, male caregivers could use a little help.
Marc Silver discovered this firsthand when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, and though he stood by her and eventually figured out how to be a good caregiver, he’s the first to admit he made plenty of mistakes along the way. After their ordeal (his wife is doing fine at present), he wrote an instruction manual to help other caregiving-challenged men. His book is called Breast Cancer Husband, How to Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. I recently caught up with Marc to talk about his experiences and to find out what advice he has for other men.
Q: Why do men need extra help when it comes to caregiving?
A: Caregiving is a role that a lot of guys are unfamiliar with, and particularly in the case of breast cancer, it is thrust upon them with no time for preparation. Personally I just remember feeling totally clueless and getting a few things completely wrong.
Q: For example?
A: Well, my wife Marsha called me immediately after her diagnosis. She’d just been told out of the blue that she had breast cancer. She was looking for some husbandly advice and solace, and my first reaction over the phone was, “Ew, that doesn’t sound good.”
Q: Uh, oh.
A: It gets worse [laughs.] We continued to talk a bit more, but only about logistics, when what she was needing at that point was sympathy and compassion. Then, at the end of the conversation I hung up, stayed at work all day, and didn’t come home until the usual hour.
Q: What did your wife say about that?
A: Marsha told me later, “I must have called the wrong husband.”
Q: In doing research for your book, did you find that your initial reaction—let’s be nice and describe it as missing her emotional cues—was a common one?
A: There are plenty of examples of men who ran straight home to be there for their wives when a cancer diagnosis was made. But yes, many men make mistakes like these, and I’ve heard of worse.
Q: Like what?
A: After a speaking engagement for my book, a couple came up to me and the husband told me that his reaction to his wife’s diagnosis was, “Well, you want to stop for dinner at Hooters?” I asked him if he was trying to be ironic or funny, but he insisted he was just thinking about a good place to get a meal.
Q: Sounds like men can’t cope initially and go into autopilot. Is this denial?
A: Yes, I think so. But it’s a very human reaction. One therapist I interviewed for the book said, “Nobody is sitting there saying, ‘Oh gosh, I hope I get to be a caregiver for a loved one who is diagnosed with cancer.’”
Q: So, guys shouldn’t beat themselves up too much about initial blundering?
A: No, they shouldn’t. That is very important. It is inevitable that you are going to do things that are going to tick your wife off or be not the kind of things she needs at that time. But you can learn from that. A lot of woman said to me that the motto for the husband is: “Shut up and listen.”
Q: Is there something inherently different about men that makes it harder for them to be good caregivers? Or, are men just not socialized to get it? Is it nature or nurture?
A: In my research I found a little bit of both. Men are simply not taught to tune in to others emotionally the way women are. On the nature side, doctors point to studies showing women have more of the hormone oxytocin, which promotes empathy.
Q: Still, it sounds like you’re saying, with some help, men can and do learn to be better caregivers.
A: Yes, absolutely. A big challenge is that men like to be problem-solvers. Instead, they need to learn that their role, as a caregiver, is to be an echo or a foil: Let her talk things through with you without interrupting to say, “here’s what you should do.” You’re not supposed to be in charge here. She is the boss.
Q: Does that make you the assistant?
A: Yes, exactly.
Q: Can you give an example of being supportive, without taking charge?
A: It is very common for a patient to be overwhelmed by all of the medical information. So, it’s important to join her at all medical appointments. Make lists of her questions for the doctors prior to each visit, and keep the list in front of you during the visit to make sure all of them get answered. Also, take good notes on these medical conversations so you can go over the details later.
Q: Your book title stresses helping your wife and yourself. How so? Isn’t that selfish?
A: Part of what you have to do as the caregiver is to be selfish sometimes. Whether it’s going out for a bike ride or watching a movie you like. You need time for yourself to recharge.
Q: So, if caregivers have a need to, say, go play golf or take a bike ride for a few hours, that’s ok?
A: Yes, but I would always ask my wife’s permission first. I interviewed Cokie Roberts for the book. She said when she was going through breast cancer, friends would call up and ask what could they do. And her first response was: “Play tennis with my husband.” It is certainly much harder to be the patient, but it is tough to be a caregiver too.