These days, the idea of self-care is everywhere, from magazine covers to social media. In theory, self-care is about taking charge of your own well-being and happiness. In practice, it’s much more complicated. A search of #selfcare turns up the following: Yoga. Manicures. Face masks. Netflix marathons. Shopping. Marie Kondo. Ice cream. Whole30. More face masks. Mindfulness. Smoothies. CrossFit. Going out. Staying in.
Did I mention face masks?
Although we may not be able to settle on what self-care is, most of us can agree on feeling guilty about not doing more of it. Self-care has become just one more “to-do” we feel bad about not getting to. However, what if the problem lies not with us but with how we define self-care — or rather, how it’s been defined for us?
I spent the first year of my son’s life trying to practice self-care as I understood it from magazines and Instagram. I read that I should set my alarm an hour earlier to exercise and have “me” time. I did, and then sleep-walked through the rest of the day. I tried a “renewing” face mask, which ruined my sheets and pillowcases when I dozed off in it. I made an appointment for a massage and then kept one anxious eye on the clock, worried about relieving the sitter on time.
My breaking point came after staying up all night preparing for a “relaxing” weekend away by doing all the baby’s laundry, stocking the refrigerator, and cleaning out my inbox. I then spent my vacation weekend at urgent care with a case of stress-related pink eye and some hard realizations about self-care and the toll it was taking on me. Here’s what I learned:
I began to understand that self-care is not about self-improvement.
It’s not about losing weight or living our best lives. It doesn’t make promises about looking younger or having a happier marriage. While those may be welcome side effects, we should be skeptical of “self-care” that is only designed to make things look good on the surface. Try a relaxing beauty routine to look youthful! Eat clean for glowing skin! Learn to meditate for success! It’s confusing because things marketed as self-care can positively impact our well-being — if we do them for the right reasons. However, if you’re undertaking something primarily to “fix” yourself, it’s likely not real self-care.
I learned that it’s not adding new things to our list of responsibilities.
It’s not cramming weekly acupuncture sessions or hip-hop dance classes onto calendars already creaking under the weight of the many schedules we’re managing. This was a hard one for me to swallow because I have a million interests I’d like to explore. I came to realize, though, that while trying new things can be exciting, for me, self-care is not about the new. Instead, it’s about returning to the things that have always made me feel happy and whole. It’s about remembering what makes me me — the person I was before I became the keeper of anyone else’s well-being.
Self-care is about needs, not wants.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love a luxurious bubble bath without my toddler pounding on the door. I’d love a Netflix marathon on the couch on a Saturday afternoon. I’d love a manicure, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and some hotel-quality sheets. However, I don’t need any of those things. None of them have a lasting impact on my happiness, and frankly, it’s insulting to suggest that they would.
Mothers spend almost twice as much time on domestic responsibilities than fathers do, even when we’re working outside the home. We need more than a face mask and a nap. We need help. We need more and better child-care. We need partners who do their fair share. We need someone to clean the house and take the kids for the morning so that we can reclaim time in our day for things that truly restore and nourish us. Suggesting anything less is like recommending a band-aid to cure a major illness.
I learned that self-care is not a one-time event.
It doesn’t just happen on your birthday or Mother’s Day. It’s a well from which we need to regularly drink in order to navigate the daily demands of motherhood. Going too long without it triggers survival mode and makes it impossible for us to be good mothers, wives, daughters, coworkers, and friends. It also doesn’t just happen by magically appearing on the calendar once a week. Self-care is something we have to prioritize, and sometimes even to fight for when others don’t understand its importance. This is hard as a mom because we are accustomed (and often rewarded) for putting others’ needs before ours.
Self-care is truly about putting on your own oxygen mask first.
Over time, it became easier for me to recognize what self-case isn’t. Defining what it is, though, is more complicated. I liken it to the age-old saying about pornography: it’s hard to describe, but I know it when I see it. Or in this case, when I feel it. It leaves me feeling centered rather than scattered. Present in the moment rather than thinking ahead to my next responsibility. Filled up in a way that lasts longer than a manicure and that helps me remain calm through traffic jams, toddler tantrums, and last-minute deadlines at work.
These are feelings that don’t come without practice and discipline. So much so that sometimes a face mask just sounds easier. The well-being and happiness that come from true self-care, though, are always worth it.