Childhood is supposed to be a time of carefree development and education. This is to be facilitated by parents who guide the child whilst managing the responsibilities required to maintain shelter and supplies.
For many good reasons, we teach our children to keep family business private — to not give out the house address or talk about income. It’s also true some families have sinister reasons for wanting to keep the familial situation secret.
What gets reinforced is that any home life that diverges from media representations of “normal families” is to be kept secret — whether it be for pride, shame, or fear.
Simultaneously, children get the impression that their family struggles are abnormal, leaving them to feel isolated in their circumstances.
Johnathan Gutierrez, 15, of Boca Raton, Florida, is the juvenile caregiver to his mother, grandmother, and brother. His father works 60-hours a week to provide financially for the family.
Johnathan does more than a little extra cleaning, he’s responsible for cooking, cleaning, getting his brother ready for school, and ensuring that everyone takes their medicine. During the rough weeks, he may also need to carry his mother to bed and the bathroom and must supervise her showers.
Johnathan’s mother, Jennifer Gutierrez, has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), while his grandmother has pre-dementia. His brother was born with sagittal carniosnyostosis — a condition where the skull is crushing the brain — and has had seven surgeries to expand his skull.
An emotional Jennifer acknowledged that Johnathan “should be worried about homecoming and school events and going to the movies with his friends and hanging out and everything else.” Instead, he’s a “hands on” big brother who manages baths and homework and always makes sure dinner is on the table.
Sometimes humiliated by her inability to provide care for herself or children, Jennifer sometimes cries. Johnathan won’t have it, telling her “Don’t cry Mommy, don’t cry. This is not something that I don’t want to do. I love you.”
It isn’t always easy, but Johnathan does it out of love. Still, he didn’t talk to his friends about his secret home life as a psuedo-parent due to perceptions that they led “stress-free” lives. While they may not all be caregivers, it seems everyone comes out of childhood having overcome some difficulty.
In actuality, there are suspected to be over a million juvenile caregivers in the United States. They perform tasks that adult caregivers are paid to yet they are unpaid and there is no legislation to support their unique needs.
Gutierrez joined the American Association for Caregiving Youth program at his school. Throughout Palm Beach County alone, there are more than 500 members.
Acting much like a support group, Johnathan now has people that he can talk to about the stress and frustrations that come with being a child with adult responsibilities at home. “They understand what you’re going through,” Johnathan said.
Meanwhile, Jennifer is grateful that he has support. “If he needs to talk to somebody, they have counselors there. It’s just an amazing program.”
Jonathan recently did a longer interview with Vice News that posted to Facebook Dec. 19 and has gone viral. Jennifer is happy that other teens will learn about the program and get the emotional support they need.
I was a juvenile caregiver who spoke very little about the added responsibilities of my home life. Knowing the added stress and feelings of isolation personally, I’m so happy there are school-based, supportive environments for this invisible population.
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