by: Maralee Bradley
(This post is part of a series on self-care. You can find my introductory post here.)
It was almost a year ago now that I first read the words “self-care” and felt the stinging realization that while I knew what those words meant, I wasn’t sure what they meant TO ME. “Care” is a nice enough word. I take care of my kids, I care for my friends, I know God cares for me. It was just that “self” part that kept tripping me up. It sounded selfish. It sounded weak or weird and like one more thing I didn’t have time for. But when you come to realize how emotionally empty you are, how physically exhausted you are, how spiritually dead you feel, you know it’s time for a change. And that change might be learning what self-care means to you and how to think about it differently.
Photo by Rebecca Tredway Photography: “Sometimes I have to give myself permission to slow down and simply create. Whether it’s pruning a rosebush or coloring in a book, writing a journal entry or cutting a snowflake, the act of creating is soul-nourishing.”
I don’t want to present to you this picture that my life has been all about serving others at the expense of taking care of myself. That isn’t totally accurate. Obviously meeting just the physical needs of six young kids can be draining and will eliminate a lot of options for “me time” the way other people define it, but I have had plenty of moments of fun in my daily life. I think fully half of my self-care dilemma wasn’t that I wasn’t taking care of myself, it was my ATTITUDE about taking care of myself. Tell me if these scenarios sound familiar to you:
-It has been a stressful day with the kids, but they’re finally in bed. I sit down with a bowl of ice-cream and do some virtual planning of a trip to Maine I’ll probably never take.
-A child wants me to play legos with him, but I just started reading a fascinating article on a topic I’m passionate about so I tell him to give me ten minutes and I’ll be right there.
-I bought myself a new shirt. It was on clearance and we have the money budgeted for it, but I know a thousand different ways I could have spent that money on the kids.
-We do a special take-out dinner for the kids, but we pick-up cheap fast food for them and classier stuff for us to eat later.
In each one of those scenarios I have a choice to make that comes down to not just self-care, but to self-talk. I can tell myself things like, “You are being selfish. Why can’t you be more productive? You shouldn’t have spent that money on yourself. Your kids deserve better than a mom who wouldn’t put their needs first.” Or I can tell myself, “You matter. You are a person, too.” Each of the above scenarios could be described as an act of self-care, but when I beat myself up about them, they cease to have the power to rejuvenate me and become a source of guilt.
If you love to run, when you’re out running do you tell yourself, “This is a selfish waste of time. It isn’t fair to use our limited resources on a babysitter just so I can run.” or do you tell yourself, “This is important time I invest in taking care of myself so I can be the best wife, mom, daughter, and friend I can be.” It’s the same act either way. In theory, it should be considered self-care either way, but I think it loses much of its beneficial power when I use my act of self-care to feel worse about myself and my choices.
In order to fully embrace self-care, I needed to first stop and realize that I was actually already doing it. It didn’t have to be this big overwhelming thing to try and figure out what I should be doing differently or better. I do take care of myself, but the self-talk aspect was what needed work. I have learned to deal gently with myself in the words I use AND I’ve learned to model that for my husband and kids. It is important for them to know that I am not some RoboMom. I am not superwoman. I need to rest, I need moments of quiet, I need time with friends. I can communicate to them that these activities are important for me to do because I AM A PERSON. Not because I’ve earned it or I deserve it or because “you kids drive me crazy and I need a break.” I don’t need to demean them in the process, I just need to communicate that just like I take care of my kids, I also need to take care of myself.
(You could also go a step past negative self-talk and into straight-up selfishness with thoughts like, “All I do all day is serve these ungrateful brats. It’s finally time for me to do something for ME.” All of us who have gone down that road know when we get interrupted by a child with a need– as we inevitably do– all that hostility gets thrown at them. This is no good. A post on the difference between selfishness and self-care is in the works to discuss this more.)
I think a fundamental task of parenthood is teaching your kids to view you as a human. When your kids know you’re a person with feelings and needs, I think it becomes more natural for them to see the needs and feelings of other people in their lives, too. I think we have two options about how we teach our kids we are humans, too. We either lose our minds and break down in crying exhaustion because we’ve neglected ourselves for so long, or we proactively tell our kids that we need some time to play or be alone or exercise or have a hobby or whatever because we are people who are more than “just” their mom. Either way, our kids will come to find out we have needs but one way is much less damaging to them and to ourselves.
This whole thought process has made me see my relationship with my own mom in a new light. When my mom says, “Have you been getting enough rest?” or “When was the last time you two went on a date?” or “Have you read a good book recently?” I start to see that when your kids are off and on their own, you want to know they’re taking care of themselves the way you would have taken care of them. How will my own kids learn to do that if I don’t model that for them? What if I started loving myself as well as my mom loves me, asking myself the questions she asks me, prioritizing my needs the way she would? Even if you don’t have that kind of a relationship with your own mom, you can imagine how you’d want your children to care for themselves as adults and give that kind of grace to yourself.
I am learning to fight the unnecessary dichotomy of believing that being a good wife/mom/friend/Christian means neglecting myself. If I’m going to pour into my family and community, I need to have something to pour. I need to give myself moments of self-care and I need to acknowledge that I am worth caring about. The reality is that I am going to eat the ice-cream, read the book, watch that documentary, so I can either make that a healthy moment of being gentle with myself or I can spend it feeling guilty and more stressed. The choice seems easy when I look at it that way, but it’s still a struggle on a daily basis.
If you’re struggling with the concept of self-care, I want to challenge you to think critically about the messages you’re giving yourself. Are you gentle with yourself? Do you treat yourself like a person of worth? Do you acknowledge that you’re a person with needs and that’s okay? Can you identify the ways you are already practicing self-care, but not identifying it that way? I think this is an important first step in figuring out what you may still need to do for yourself and what the heart of your self-care struggle might be.