10.8% of all Australians identified as carers in the 2018 Australian Census. That is approximately 2.65 million people! And yet, Erin–who was a Disability Support Worker for five years and is a carer for her brother–says that “we don’t really talk about it.”
Keep quiet and carry on
Erin caring for her brother wasn’t vocalised as an expectation; there was “no conversation” about it at all.
As the youngest daughter, it was her responsibility to “make his food and help him with his hygiene… administer medication.” Her second brother, James, would “entertain him by playing video games with him and talking to him.”
Erin, 19, also emphasises that her mum, for many years, was the “main carer” for her brother. While Erin recognises that expectations placed upon her were gendered “to a degree”, she points out that her mum was a carer and mother of three with a full time job for all her childhood.
This–albeit unequal–distribution of labour has been crucial in making sure her brother receives appropriate support. However, Erin grew up with and then internalised an unspoken expectation that she must “always put others first”.
For Erin, this looked like “fitting your life around him [her brother],” taking on the majority of household tasks as she got older, and working two jobs all while going to school.
I reached out to Emma Madsen, who runs The Carers Club. She says, “most carers are in the workforce in some capacity.” Emma also points out: “Through my work with carers […] it might be a more 50/50 split between men and women carers. Male carers often don’t identify as caregivers, and I suspect internalise a lot of their struggles, resulting in them not accessing services and support, which in turn doesn’t allow us to capture them in the data.”
In Erin and James’ case–although the kinds of care they provided were gendered–they shared care responsibilities while James lived at home.
Family caregivers “often” provide care “for years without a reasonable break, recognition, [or] reasonable financial support”, and Erin is no exception.
Erin: “He [her brother] has to be our main priority.”
These silent expectations were “the norm.” They’ve taken a toll on Erin’s mental health and she has learnt to always sacrifice her own wellbeing in favour of her “friends and family.”
What we think we owe to each other
Erin tries to tell herself, “Hey, stop living for other people!” but finds herself doing just that. Once you find yourself in the rhythm of “putting others first”, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop.
“If something is totally not my issue–maybe my friends are going through something–I still feel the need to step in and be their support person. Or if my mum is having a hard time, but I’m also having a hard time, I will still look after her rather than myself. I’ll still look after my brother.”
Erin would feel “guilty” if she acted any other way.
Erin also reflects on how she and her brother James relate to one another: “We were kind of like business partners.”
“When I see James and it’s just the two of us we’re like, ‘Oh, what do we talk about?’”
Their shared responsibilities of care took priority over a “sibling bond,” and they are now relearning how to be brother and sister. Erin sees “glimpses of a bond” with both her brothers, but she doesn’t think it will “ever be normal.”
Searching for support as a young person
According to the 2021 Carers Wellbeing Survey, young carers “are at greater risk of high psychological distress.” This makes it crucial that young carers like Erin have access to robust support systems.
From ages 9 to 16 Erin belonged to a Young Carers program run through the St Vincent de Paul Society. They organised monthly activities like going to the movies, and camps twice a year. “They were probably the best thing ever, they were amazing.”
“You could relate to everyone…because everyone going to these programs were young carers as well. You could always talk to them.”
However, finding support as a young carer has been a mixed bag for Erin. When she attempted to access other support services, she says, “They wouldn’t take me seriously because I was young… they just wouldn’t listen.” She would reach out for help, “and then nothing would happen.”
Erin asks: “So where did that information go?”
When Erin came to school exhausted or overwhelmed, people around her didn’t seem to notice. “No one really offered… to be like ‘Hey, do you wanna talk about anything?’”
Sometimes Erin felt like she wasn’t allowed to be a kid. “I felt so grown up for a long time. People always used to say, ‘Oh, you’re so mature! That’s amazing!’ At the time I thought that was great… but I shouldn’t have had to be.”
Because this was “the norm” for Erin, it wasn’t expected that she should reach out for support. “I felt like an adult when I was 12.”
Particularly in primary school and early high school, “there was never any talk of a less-than-perfect home life” among her peers. Erin was “weird” if she tried to reach out.
This “perceived stigma associated with caring” makes it harder for young carers to share what they are going through.
These days, Erin is learning how to look after herself: “My brain is going a thousand miles a minute.” It’s the small things that help her right now: “my friends, going on walks, taking it one day at a time.”
Erin hopes for “more awareness” that “some young people look after family members,” and that young carers are able to develop strong “support networks.”
- Are you a Young Carer, or do you know a Young Carer looking for support? Little Dreamers provide online and in person programs for young carers aged 4 to 25. The Carer Gateway and Carers ACT are also great places to start
Picture at top: Young carer Erin. She’s chosen not to have her face in the photos. Pic: Jesse Blakers
Jesse Blakers is a Global Studies graduate who studied at the University of Canberra. She's also a budding academic, with a current focus on queer representation in media. Jesse recently interned at BroadAgenda.