What do you think of when you think of self-care? Is it a manicure? A bubble bath? A solo trip to the grocery store? Maybe a chat on the phone with a friend? Finally making that doctor appointment you’ve been putting off in favor of caring for every single person in your household (and maybe some others outside your household)?
Self-care is a pretty buzzy word lately, and also pretty charged. How do you feel when you hear the phrase?
My daughter showed me the meaning of real self-care
I was cleaning up some art supplies a few months ago, while my daughter, Z, was working at her art table. She is an artist and a maker, and is constantly making cards for any and all upcoming occasions. My husband’s birthday isn’t for a few months, and I already have three cards hidden away that she’s made, and has asked me to save.
On this day, she approached me to show me what she had been working on. It was a small card, made from a folded 3×5 index card, and there was a picture of a little girl on the front, with her name at the top.
“It’s for me,” she said. “I made a card for myself.”
I looked at the cover, admired her colors and the sweet little stick figure she had made, and then opened up the card. Inside, her message to herself: “Dear Z, I love you. Love, Z.”
I teared up a bit.
I was surprised, impressed, and hopeful that this innocent and uncomplicated idea of showing herself some love and care wouldn’t be knocked out of her by the world we live in.
“It’s lovely,” I said to her. “What a great idea. What would you like to do with it?”
“I think I’ll put it in my room, so I can see it from my bed,” she told me.
Wow, I thought.
When do we lose that? When do we lose the simple, easy, “Of course I would do something nice for myself” instinct?
How can you self-care when you are conditioned to put yourself last?
Like most women, I was conditioned to put myself last. From the time we are young, girls are trained to be “nice”, praised for being “caring”, and are often told, directly or indirectly, that we are responsible for the feelings and behavior of others.
All of these things can get in the way of us feeling like we have the right, privilege, and obligation to care for ourselves.
And then there are the structural forces that make it hard for many of us women to practice self-care:
- being expected to carry a full household mental load
- Lack of affordable childcare
- Fear of judgment
- Poverty, or fear of poverty
- Sexism and inequality in the workplace
- Disintegration of multigenerational households
- Lack of respect and pay for the work that disproportionately falls to women, often on top of working outside the home
- Lack of access to services for families who are undocumented
- All of these forces weighing extra heavily on parents of color
Why list these out? I share this here to make sure you know that there are real stressors, that set up our society (especially here, where I am, in the US) to rely and depend on the undervalued and unpaid work of women (and others who are primarily responsible for the care of the children), to the extent that it has become nearly impossible for women to meet their own needs with any ease.
So, any kind of self-care is really hard. And it’s not your fault.
But also because of this, I have to say, a bubble bath or painting my nails was nice. But not much else. I quickly found myself consumed by life, burned out and getting stuck soon afterwards. Everything I was being sold on self-care, didn't address those deeper issues.
What I wanted was something longer lasting. I needed to feel the shift I might expect if I took a month off and went climbing mountains. (Something I could absolutely not justify).
Let go of your guilt around self-care
Knowing self-care was hard, and accepting that It wouldn’t happen overnight, helped me let go of some of the guilt and resistance that I had and got in the way of caring for myself.
Here are the places that have felt especially difficult for me:
- Feeling like I didn’t know what I needed (Perhaps because I hadn’t paid attention to my own needs in so long, I didn’t know what would truly make a difference.)
- Feeling like I was “doing self-care wrong” – why were so many other people seemingly fulfilled by bubble baths, shopping trips, and manicures? What was I missing?
- Trying to enjoy the one hour I had to myself – the pressure of how to spend that time so I could “make the most of it” was too much, and I could not figure out what to do!
These are tough things to overcome, but I did find a practice that has helped me along each time.
Listening Partnerships. (Learn more about the practice here.)
I found it most helpful to focus a whole listening exchange on my self-care and what was getting in my way, because the temptation to work on parenting challenges is strong – setting aside time just for this, for me, helped other demands not to leak in.
If you want to take on a self-care listening partnership, here are some useful prompts:
- Talk about the first time you felt like your needs were not important.
- Talk about the people that cared for you when you were young. How did they show you (or not show you) how to meet your own needs?
- Use a self-care planner to list out what you need and who can help. This one is excellent, and can be printed out multiple times to use for different events or challenges in your life.
- Shout things like “Me first!” or “I am important!” and see what comes up for you. You may find yourself laughing, crying, or raging – let your listening partner support you as you explore the roots of your feelings.
- Practice asking for help.
- Imagine your ideal scenario in terms of self-care: What would it look like? How would it feel? Who would you lean on?
Once you have been listened to, it will help you think better about what you need.
Feeling stuck? You're not alone. And you don't have to be.
It can feel impossible to pay attention to our own needs, when so many of those needs go unmet.
Your listening partnership will give you the space and safety to give voice to those buried feelings that keep you from being able to take that first step of moving towards caring for yourself. Find another parent who’s game, and give it a go!
For me, good self-care leaves me nourished. It helps me regain flexibility and hope. Self-care brightens my mood and helps decisions come easier. I feel more able to move through life showing up how I want. I get unstuck in so many ways.
So, what can that support look like?
You are worth your time and attention. Sometimes though, you may still get stuck. It may seem an impossible task to move your body. To take a walk you know would serve you well. You may recognise that you need to set boundaries with your in-laws, and each time you see them, let it slide. Maybe you have a breakthrough that you'd love to get out your oil paints and paint away an afternoon, and yet that feels such a distant reality.
So many forces are at work that tell us we should be doing something else, something “productive” instead.
What can help, and what is wonderful, is having someone give you more support as you do that thing. You’re going against your usual grain, and you deserve a little extra.
What I love for this is adult Special Time.
Perhaps you do regular or occasional special time with your kid(s). Did you know it’s for adults too? We pour so much love, interest, and patience into our work with our children. Our kind attention is the balm that allows them to grow and explore, and we can make use of the same kind of attention from another adult.
If you aren’t sure where to start, check out Hand in Hand’s Adult-to-Adult Special Time replay here. All you need is another adult (in person, or over the phone or video chat) and a timer. And if you want to give this a try with practised experts, join a call during our Recharge Fundraiser. There are several sessions devoted to Special Time and others for Listening Time.
I have used adult special time to figure out difficult technology, to work on mastering a new physical skill, or even to have someone be with me as I made a difficult phone call. Things that seem impossible to do alone, become manageable when someone else shine their delight and confidence in my direction.
Want a self-care cheat sheet? Here’s a roadmap:
Sometimes it’s good to have a bit of an outline or a mental framework for thinking about making a change. This article is a good place to start, and organizes self-care into four different areas: physical, psychological/cognitive, emotional, and spiritual.
You can also use the principles of self-care to take on larger issues in your life and community, and build your sense of power and agency. There are many excellent organizations that are leading movements in this area – here’s a good place to start.
- Discover what’s holding you back: write in a journal, talk out loud, or simply pay attention to the feelings that come up as you think about what you might like to do to begin down the self-care road.
- Get support: time to bring your wonderings to a listening partnership. Check out the prompts above to guide you. Figure out, with support, what is in your way, and why it feels so hard to put yourself first.
- Make a plan: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Here’s a good template.
- Know yourself better: What do you love? What makes you feel whole? What do you want to get rid of? What do you do that you think will make you feel better but actually makes you feel worse?
- Find your power: Take action, and get support while you do it. Try some adult-to-adult special time to free your playful spirit and take on big challenges.
- Pass the torch: How can you support someone else claiming their right to self-care? Let’s make this the norm – we are stronger together.
And when your doubt kicks in, or your inner critic raises concerns, when you mentally shift the moment you'll play or take time off, remember.
You are good.
You are worthy of care.
You get to do it just for yourself.
And guess what? The ripple effects all this has on your family and community are the bonus.
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