What is Self-Care? I hear about it everywhere I turn for the past few years. At first it was kind a radical notion among my early-parenthood circles. The idea that you should carve out time for yourself when you have this helpless tiny being entirely dependent on you seemed so novel and almost daring. Then it seemed to sort of take on this “spa-day” image involving meditation, candles, fancy smoothie recipes, face masks, and sometimes new shoes or makeup or handbags(?). Among my colleagues it seems to be about placing firm boundaries around work time and around the unpaid labor we do as medical professionals and caregivers. It seems to be about compartmentalizing as much as possible so work doesn’t ruin our home life. And also about buying things and doing things to “treat” ourselves.
My own experiences around self-care have been evolving over the past few years. During my pregnancies and with my first post-partum time, my self-care practices involved a LOT of attention to my body. There was a lot of money and time spent figuring out how to feed myself with little time to devote to actually cooking. There was daily stretching and exercise. Weekly yoga classes. Creative (and sometimes desperate) sleep strategies were employed and tweaked over time. I placed very strict boundaries around my “home” time vs my “work” time. I “left work at work” so to speak.
I’ll be honest. While my efforts were good, and I didn’t lose my health or my mind, I fell woefully short of some ideal version of self-care. Especially after the birth of baby #2. I never lost the baby weight, I felt my inherent creativity was really atrophying, I did not maintain friendships well, my finances were a wreck, and communication within my marriage was strained.
I had been on the “conscious living” path for over a decade. I had a solid understanding of meditation, mindfulness, simple living, healthy eating, non-violent communication, etc. And yet, I could not seem to figure out something basic like how to care for myself. Fortunately, I have some great friends and some great real-world and digital-world community. I realized I am not alone in this. In fact, I was doing a lot better than many people I know personally. A more recent discovery is that self-care for a mom, and self-care for a veterinarian, are not just about creating boundaries and finding more “self-care” items to add to your “to-do” list. Self-care is really about meeting your needs while meeting other’s needs.
This has been a profound shift for me. I am still trying to figure out the application of this and the ramifications. For one thing, the entire industry created around selling “self-care” is pretty irrelevant and possibly even predatory. Candles and oils and classes and clothes and facials and massages are not real self care. (There are exceptions of course. If you need new clothes, by all means, meet that need. If you have dry skin, by all means, use some lotion. Heck, massages are wonderful for muscle tension and stress relief. But they are NOT a default for fixing your life!)
First, we have to determine our needs. In and of itself, this is a big deal. Some of us have been so busy meeting the needs and expectations and even just whimsical desires of others for so long that we do not recognize our own needs. I suggest a review of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs as a good starting place. This SimplyPsychology site has a nice discussion if you need a review. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
Sometimes you need to really radically “start small”. Like seriously, are you eating a basically adequate diet? Are you consistently sleeping? If the answer to either of those questions is “no”, then no amount of face cream or herbal tonic will fix your life. You have to eat and sleep.
But beyond those really foundational things, we have way more needs, and a simple “needs pyramid” does not adequately help us understand those needs. While a need for creativity is pretty lofty in some ways, it is not actually less important than fulfilling some of the more basic needs. We are not fully our best selves until all of our needs are met.
The daily challenge comes in meeting all of these needs, for both ourselves and those who depend on us. The small humans in our lives, the animals in our lives, our clients, our coworkers and employees, our domestic partners, our friends, our larger families, our communities… the list seems endless.
But we are not meant to spend our lives in selfless service. This is not a life well lived. Being of useful service to those we love and to our broader communities is beautiful and can be fulfilling life-giving work. As long as it is meeting our needs too.
Work-life balance is a vicious myth that needs to be dispelled. It is a concept that is based in a false dichotomy. You can either be in “life” mode or “work” mode, and only one at a time. And if you spend too much time or effort in one, the other will fall apart. This is inaccurate and limiting. From a holistic perspective, we don’t want “either/or”, we want “yes/and”. Work AND life. Life in work. Working life. Life-giving work. The work of life.
Your job should not be soul-sucking work that robs you of joy. Run away from that. Find a job that gives you a sense of belonging, of connection, of purpose, that allows you to be creative, allows you to learn new things, and allows you to contribute to something greater than yourself. Yes, there will be hard bad days. Things you won’t tell your children about. Coworkers you struggle to connect with. But overall, it should contribute to your life, not detract from it.
This obviously isn’t going to happen overnight. You aren’t going to suddenly quit your day job to find the perfect fit (most of the time). However, you can start positioning yourself for a move that will bring you this kind of job. And more importantly, you can start bringing your needs to work and you can start looking for ways to meet those needs where you are.
Then you need to meet the rest of your needs outside of work. So how does that look? You meet those needs together with your family and friends and community. Instead of getting a sitter so you can have some “girlfriend time”, can you all meet up with your kids to hike or picnic? Instead of alternating shifts with your spouse so you can each go to the gym alone, can you all go together to exercise? Bike together, or play in a pool, or hike, or jog around a track while your kids play, or do an exercise video together in the living room. Instead of kicking the family out of the house so you can clean, get everyone involved in daily household maintenance and improvement.
BabywearingJess blog has a great piece of night-time parenting that delves into the child’s hierarchy of needs vs the parent’s. https://babywearingwithjess.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/your-needs-matter-too-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-mothers-sleep/
I’m not saying you can never leave your children in order to have alone time or couple time. But I am saying, that the more you can meet your needs alongside the needs of others, the less challenging it will feel to meet your needs. Starting thinking about integration rather than compartmentalization.
Right now I am doing all of my writing in coffee shops. Not at home in the presence of my pre-school age children. This is not all or nothing. But as I learn more about my needs, and as I have more practice and experience integrating my life rather than compartmentalizing my life, I hope to be able to do most of my (non-clinical) work at home.
We can find ways to be more fully ourselves in more places more often with effort and practice. Start bringing your full self to the table more often. It’s OK to be a parent at work. It’s OK to be a knowledgeable professional in room full of parents. It’s OK to advocate for anyone or anything that needs it at any time anywhere. Including yourself. Speak up. You have a lot of offer. You are of value. And the more you bring that value into the light, the more your higher needs will be met.
In the end, this is self-care. It is not spa treatments and new accessories and special foods. It is not creating boundaries that fracture us into pieces and fracture our lives into the “soul-sucking work” vs “life-giving freedom”. It is learning about and understanding our needs, and then setting out to meet them alongside and within the context of the needs of others.