My mom was not a fully present mom. Physically, she was there. She made sure we were properly clothed and properly fed. She ensured that our necessary comforts were handled and handled well. We were safe, always. However, she lacked the ability to understand our emotional needs as children. In truth, as a woman who married young, who found herself as a working wife and mother while she was still barely an adult herself, I don’t know that she had the resources to provide everything we needed. She focused on the most immediate needs; we had a roof over our heads, we always had someone looking after us, we always had proper sturdy shoes on our feet, our home was always clean.
She loved, yet she didn’t have all the soft and comforting contours one thinks of in a mom. She wasn’t prepared for the resounding emotional needs of her children, she couldn’t figure out how to manage our feelings along with her own conflicting emotions. When I look back now, I can see that she was overwhelmed, I can see that she was overworked, and I know without a doubt that she had too many balls in the air. Nobody was taking care of her. She didn’t know that she was allowed to take care of herself.
When I became a mother and began to experience the emotional needs of my own kids as being big and all-consuming, I faltered. On the one hand, I overcompensated, becoming the everything to their need for soothing. On the other hand, my personal boundaries became blurry, burning out my energy reserves on all levels. I had all the balls in the air, juggling in the same circus show as all my fellow mothers, and I was completely depleted. Then one day, someone said to me the meanest thing that’s ever been said about me as a mom, “Some people just can’t handle it.”
Rather than judge me during a particularly difficult time, that person could have offered to help. I won’t deny that this hurt, but it also offered me a lightbulb moment. I was experiencing the very thing that my mom had experienced: There was nobody taking care of me. I also knew, however, that I couldn’t repeat history, therefore needed to do better. There was nobody taking care of me, therefore, I needed to take care of myself. To mother myself, to be attentive to my own needs, to provide for my own well-being.
There is a disconnect on the subject of self-care these days, between what it actually means and what people are made to think it means. On the one side are the moms who promote it with spa days and massages and girls’ nights out. On the other side are the moms who are already burnt, and who view this kind of self-care as merely another task to add to their already lengthy to-do lists, or, in many cases, who literally cannot take the time or the funds for these types of activities. It’s a misconception that can harm more than help, and I don’t believe it needs to be this way.
Sure, self-care can mean coffee dates, pedicures and yoga classes. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities. I myself have a tradition of going to a hotel one weekend per year, and if all I do is drool on my pillow as I watch 48 hours of television from bed, then that’s all I do. However, these are just means, they are not ends. Just as Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be about overpriced roses and heart-shaped chocolates, self-care doesn’t have to be a predefined activity or commercial experience.
At its core self-care is literally caring for self, taking care of yourself. Mothering yourself.
We do it for everyone else in our households. We do it for our kids. We do it for our pets. We even do it for our partners. We shouldn’t necessarily have to do it for ourselves, but in many cases, there is no one more qualified to do it better.
I know what my needs are at any given time. I know how I feel, I know if I’m on solid footing or if I’m three wise cracks away from combustion. Rather than self-care being another item on my to-do list, something to find time for in my day (which is exterior to myself, my body, my being), self-care has become a turning inward, a nano-second self check-in, done several times over the course of a day: How am I? Good. Let’s tackle that email. How am I? Shit. Lock yourself in the bathroom. How am I? Excellent. Let’s take everyone for a walk. How am I? Burnt to a crisp. Put on a movie for the kids and take a goddamn nap. How am I? I’ve lost focus. Everyone needs to back the heck off. How am I? I need boundaries. Time to set boundaries. How am I? I need help. Ask for help.
Sometimes these How am I?’s do lead to me having to schedule time in my already busy days (my main one is waking up one to two hours before the rest of the household, because I find that I need that quiet time alone), but these situations are additions to my self-care practice, rather than definitive of my self-care practice. Again, self-care is not about the activities. It’s about being in tune with our emotional well-being and giving ourselves more of what we need to feel balanced, steady, and able to juggle our days.
I’m not saying that it’s easy, and I’m not saying that it’s always consistent. But just as we check in with everyone else in our families regularly throughout the day, it is necessary to check in with ourselves too; just as we attend to the needs of everyone else in our families, we need to attend to our needs to. I don’t know if mothers will ever not play the role of juggler in a traveling circus show, but self-care can be the difference between being on the defence, or being in offence, being in charge of the show or owned by it. There are many forms of means that can help remove balls from the air—ordering pizza, only buying dishwasher-safe kitchenware and dryer-safe clothing, hiring a housecleaner or taking your coffee for a walk—but there is only one end: Taking care of yourself, so that you can take care of others.