Turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong. The whole time I’ve been an adult, and especially a mom, I have been approaching self-care the wrong way. But first let me just say that it took me a while to get comfortable with that term, “self-care.” It sounded so… cheesy? Touchy-feely? Indulgent? Far less appealing, anyway, than “working out” or “getting a massage.”
But then I had two kids, and I was continually barraged with that old airplane metaphor people love to say to parents: “You have to put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.” Actually, sometimes it’s not a metaphor. On our last trip the flight attendant said this to my husband, who was sitting next to our kids. I was wisely across the aisle. He was offended. “Do I look like someone who doesn’t know that?”
Knowing it and doing it are two different things, however. I know that we all have to take care of ourselves and I even thought I was doing a pretty good job of it. I’ve been a life-long exerciser, I get enough sleep, and as a vegetarian for 20+ years, I eat pretty healthy, too. (Not including my late-night veggie straw habit. They’re basically potato chips in multicolored stick form, let’s be honest.)
But you know what’s interesting? Even though our culture claims to value self-care, I have gotten mixed messages about it over the years.
I work from home as a freelance writer and have ever since my kids were born. This allows me the flexibility to exercise during the day (after dropping off the kids at the gym childcare if they’re not in school). I have gotten a lot of “must be nice” comments, a lot of backhanded compliments about how “good” I am about working out, some side-eye as I wait for the kids’ bus in my yoga pants. “Oh, are you off today? I wish I had the time to exercise.” The subtext is: but I can’t because I have a real job.
Sleep is a tricky subject, too. Every parent I know will jump through hoops of fire to ensure their kids get enough sleep, but it stops there. For themselves, they view sleep as an indulgence. They brag about how little they get. “I was up till midnight working.” “I got up at 5:30 a.m. to make muffins for the bake sale.” “I never get more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep. I have too much to do.”
I’m embarrassed to admit I “sleep in” till 7 a.m. on weekdays, and maybe even till the shocking hour of 9 a.m. on weekends if the kids will leave me alone and watch cartoons. I have learned the hard way, though, that sleep is as necessary to my wellbeing as drinking enough water. (Lack of both has caused me to pass out and/or forget to sign checks.)
I rarely even talk about my daily meditation practice because I don’t want people looking at me like some kind of weirdo. Reactions range from suspicious admiration (“Really? I’ve heard that’s supposed to be beneficial but I’ve never tried it.”) to eye-rolling from those who picture me chanting in front of an altar while burning incense.
I admit it took me a long time to get into meditation for all those same reasons. And there was a point when I simply couldn’t spare 10 minutes a day to meditate, my days were so packed with obligations. I only started when I read a book that said you could get the benefits from 7 minutes a day. (I know! Those extra 3 min. a day made all the difference… ha!)
It seems to me the only “acceptable” forms of self-care (for women, anyway) are mani/pedis, the occasional yoga class, and massages. Even so, I’ve heard women say they don’t tell their husbands when they get a massage because it feels too indulgent, like they did nothing all day. And several people I know say they’d never get a massage because it’s a waste of money. (Like my own husband.)
See? Self-care stigma abounds!
These are not the only forms of self-care, of course. I’m sure there are lots of people who do things like gardening or walking or reading who don’t label those activities as self-care but get the same benefits. One of my go-to stress relievers is to get outside in nature, preferably as far from other people as possible.
But here’s the part I was wrong about: I always got the impression that self-care is a reward, something you do AFTER the hard work of taking care of children or sitting through budget meetings. Or, if not a reward, then something necessary for recovery from the demands of our stressful lives.
As it turns out, self-care is actually what PREPARES you for the stressful events in life. I have learned this a few different times. First, when my husband was unexpectedly hospitalized for two weeks last summer, and again when he was laid off from his job this summer.
Both times, while I felt like I was hit with a tidal wave of anxiety and uncertainty, I was able to turn to the things that had become habit for help—sleep, exercise, meditation. There’s no way under those circumstances that I would have started these things if I hadn’t been doing them already. But they kept me grounded during extremely tough times. I had people say to me, “How are you not totally freaking out right now? If I were you, I would be.”
I now look at it like this: I didn’t implode from stress during these unexpected events because I had already laid the groundwork by years of practicing regular, intentional self-care—to get all woo-woo, touchy-feely about it. Believe me, that sounds as cheesy to me as it might to you. But it worked.
That’s another thing. I have always been a person who’s so obsessed with “what works.” If there aren’t scientifically proven benefits, I don’t want to waste my time. If there’s not an immediate payoff, what’s the point? If there’s no visible, measurable result, why bother? I’ve changed my thinking on this. My new mantra is, “Can’t hurt, might help.”
I mean, really. What’s the worst that can happen by going to bed 30 min. earlier, squeezing in a 20-min. walk, or focusing on your breathing for 10 min. a day? Are you going to regret doing those things? Are they going to keep you from doing other, more important things? No. They are not.
Self-care needs a PR makeover, in my opinion. The finger-wagging oxygen mask metaphor is getting old. The must-be-nice side-eye at people who walk the talk is tiresome. The mani/pedi Kardashian-ization of self-care is not helping. Neither is the om-chanting Lululemon-ization of it. So what’s the answer? How do we normalize what normal, healthy people should be doing anyway—namely, taking care of themselves as well as they take care of their jobs and families?
We can start by talking about it, and we can continue by prioritizing it. Not every day, not in every single way, not perfectly or even publicly if you don’t want to. But more often than not, more of us need to walk the self-care talk. Can’t hurt, might help.
LINK O’ THE DAY: This paddle board company started letting employees leave at lunchtime (with no pay cut) and increased revenues by 40%.
“When I tell people my team only works five hours a day, their response is always, ‘That’s nice, but it won’t work for me’,” says the CEO. But “having time to pursue your passions, nurture your relationships, and stay active gives you more emotional and physical energy overall—including to do your job well.”