These days, every other magazine touts methods for "self-care," encompassing everything from hot yoga with goats to eating hemp seeds to creating a vision board. It's a term most of us didn't grow up with. I know I didn't.
My mother raised three kids on her own, and I'm pretty sure that if you'd said "self-care" in her presence, she would have paused just long enough to light another cigarette and exhale in your face before turning back to cook dinner. The only time she put herself first was when she got sick, which ended up happening quite a bit. Her asthma and smoking led to recurrent bouts of pneumonia, which were often followed by deep depression. This would lead her to check out mentally for weeks, sometimes months, at a time.
As children do, I learned from her example. In my teens and 20s, I also handled stress by checking out — not because of depression or illness but with the help of alcohol and an assortment of drugs. And it worked for me — for a while.
Cut to present day. I'm a fairly responsible 40-year-old with a family and a mortgage. My body doesn't handle drugs or alcohol like it used to. Besides, as a mother of two sons, ages 4 and 1, I try to model better coping strategies. But here's the problem: I never developed better coping strategies. When it comes to dealing with stress, my go-to self-care skills include binging on Netflix and candy and biting my fingernails.
A year and a half ago, my husband and I had our second child. Making that transition with our very sensitive older son was humbling, to say the least. Then, I decided to stay home with the baby. As a one-income family, our bills began to pile up. So I picked up freelance writing work and, soon, I was sleeping even less than before. Also, Trump was elected, adding to my existing fears of just what kind of world we had brought these children into.
I ran out of nails to bite. My hair began to fall out. Thanks to some abdominal injuries from pregnancy, my back hurt almost constantly. Add to that my immense frustration at the gut I'd been unable to lose since having the baby, and I was kind of a mess.
At one point, fighting a mild case of mastitis, I began to fantasize that it would get worse, and I might end up in the hospital for a "vacation." I realized that something needed to change.
I started by scheduling a night away from it all at a local hotel. I spent much of the time just sitting in the enormous bathtub, willing myself not to listen for the baby. But I managed to get almost eight hours of sleep that night. It felt amazing. Then I arranged for another night off, at a lake house with a friend, and that was heaven. We just sat on the dock and talked for hours; I felt like myself again. For my 40th birthday, I took a whole week off, flying to Las Vegas to catch up with old friends by the pool.
While walking around downtown Vegas, I ended up seeing a fortune-teller. "You keep trying to leave your problems behind," she said, holding my hands and looking into my eyes, "but then you get home and they're still there." OK, that's probably true for most people in Vegas, but still, it spoke to me. I began to realize that self-care wasn't about escaping my life. It was about making time for myself in my life. So when I got home from my trip, I started to do just that.
When my mother-in-law asked what the baby wanted for his first birthday, I told her he'd like a NutriBullet, and soon I was drinking green smoothies every day. Whereas before my meals consisted of a handful of whatever the kids hadn't eaten — leftover oatmeal, frozen waffles, cold noodles — now I took time to prepare something nourishing for myself. I noticed I had more energy and more patience.
Then I started going to a gym that offers childcare, which means that every time I visit, I get an hour and a half entirely to myself. I usually end my workout with a luxurious five-minute shower and trip to the sauna, without anyone screaming or proudly pointing at their poo in the toilet. It's like a miniature vacation, built right into my day.
I am kinder to myself in other ways. I'm spending less time cleaning and cooking, and worrying about other people's feelings. This past month, I weaned my youngest about four months earlier than I'd planned. I hated to do it, but taking breast milk off the menu means he's finally able to sleep through the night — something I desperately needed him to do.
So here I am, four decades in, finally learning a bit about how to love and care for myself — though the term "self-care" still makes me cringe, maybe because of the privilege it implies. I realize not everyone has the resources to take time for themselves. My mother certainly didn't.
But I also think that most women are socialized to never even consider the option that loving and caring for themselves, apart from keeping up their appearance, might be worthwhile. As mothers, we're expected to take a back seat to our family's needs, stopping only to have a giant glass of merlot in the evening, while scrolling through Pinterest for bigger and better ideas on how to serve them.
Well, screw that. I'm here for my kids, of course. And for my husband and friends and family, as much as I can be. But "as much as I can" is shifting a bit as I learn to make room for something just as important: myself.