On a sniff with Sal.
I have recently determined that I am stuck on the second rung of the ladder of self-care, if there were such a thing. Stepping onto the first rung about five years ago was a huge feat, especially considering I hadn’t really heard the term self-care prior to having a baby. Once I got comfortable with the idea, it took lots of practice to step up to that next rung of actually practicing it. Now I find myself stuck once more, attempting to take that next step of feeling okay about admitting that I do my best to take care of myself.
Let me back up a bit. For those for whom this term self-care is a new one, or who like me for years and years practiced self-care unknowingly because I didn’t have anyone else to care for but me, let me explain. Like it sounds, self-care is the act of taking care of oneself. I don’t mean cleaning up after yourself or caring for your personal appearance, although in the early days after my daughter was born, I could have probably put these on my list. In general, I’m talking about making sure your needs are met before you tend to the needs of others. Often when describing self-care, people like to make that analogy of being on an airplane and being instructed in an emergency to put on your own air mask before putting on your child’s. In short: we will be of no help to another unless we get ourselves squared away first.
New parents seem to be at great risk for neglecting the need for self-care, and in the beginning, let’s face it: life is lived in the immediate hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute care of another being. But after a couple months when we finally get that tiny window of time, perhaps when the baby is napping or a relative or friend offers to watch the baby for a short bit, we get the choice to elect whether to try to refill our cup, or instead plod along checking off items from our list. Unfortunately, I used to use those precious opportunities to do some laundry, clean the house, catch up on emails, gear up to go back to work – anything but the very thing I needed most which was to take a nap. I kept this up for several months, all the while I had a little one who wasn’t napping the way that many new babies do and who spent a good part of her day grumpy or full-out wailing. I was fried. My low point came on a night when my husband and I were excited for one of our first date nights with some old friends. We had our sitter all squared away and I felt like a sliver of my old life was resurfacing. I got gussied up and almost ready to go when about fifteen minutes before the sitter was going to arrive, the baby threw up everywhere. Not a spit up, a full-on throw up that indicated that date night had come to an abrupt end.
In a healthy person who ensures that at least a tiny part of her day is dedicated to her own needs, this would be a letdown, but an inevitable reality of parenting. For a new parent who since the day her child was born decided (albeit unconsciously) to take on the martyr role and make her whole existence about the baby, this was a lethal blow. Without going into the gory details, let’s just say there were lots tears, fits and hysteria and none of these were from the baby.
It was shortly after this when I met my friend Cathy who is a parent coach (I hadn’t even known such a thing existed) and a strong proponent of self-care. Through Cathy, I found my own coach, Karen, who helped me understand the importance of taking care of myself and gave me concrete strategies for doing so. I adore both of these women and will feel forever indebted to them for helping me through those rocky first months when I needed someone to show me another way, because my way was definitely not working.
Fast forward through the past five years of not always practicing consistent self-care, but acknowledging its need and knowing that often when I find myself frustrated and spent, it is usually because I’ve neglected my own needs in lieu of someone else’s. I learned to schedule date nights with my husband, lunch dates or play dates so I could see friends, to sometimes not answer the phone if I really just needed to sit in silence for a bit, and to take long aimless walks with the dog. All of this still remained in the realm of the socially acceptable to me. I still had a hard time, though, admitting to others that I did any of these things. I put up a good front that I was spending all of my hours slaving away. I knew that I unequivocally needed the self-care I had built into my life, but I was ashamed to admit it. I felt it made me appear lazy, weak and worse yet – indulgent.
Since The Bug started kindergarten, I keep getting the question: what are you doing with all of that time? It’s an honest and innocent question, but it puts me on the defense, worried that they are really asking about the lazy, weak and indulgent ways I’m spending my time. I usually give a vague answer, like I’m still trying to figure it out or that we’ve been so busy at the beginning of the year that I haven’t had the time to give thought to this question. This is not the truth.
While telling these well-meaning folks the honest and unabridged answer would be boring and akin to having to hear all the details about someone else’s vacation, I’d like to come up with something more truthful and more respectful to myself and to all parents or anyone who takes the time to nurture his or her own needs. Ours is a culture of doing, and we place a premium on getting things done, on achieving, and importantly, on giving evidence that we’re doing both. But in the spirit of honesty, here are a few things that I have done in the first couple weeks since my daughter has been in kindergarten:
On the first or second day, I may have done one of those little heel kicks in the air and yelped with glee. It felt amazing to be alone in my house, in silence, with no set agenda. I exhaled. I sat down. I ate lunch on the sofa.
Most days, I have been regularly exercising and taking care of my physical health because a.) I pretty much neglected it in the past few years and b.) it actually feels good. (I can’t believe I said that and really meant it).
I have been reading. I have been reading all of the books that up until now I read one or two paragraphs of before my eyes got all watery and bleary and an hour later I’d wake up having lost my page, needing to slog up the stairs to put on my pajamas. Reading excites me, challenges and inspires me, and making time for it on a regular basis feels deliciously good.
I take Sally for long walks at the park and just let her sniff. I have made peace with the fact that while I want to walk, she wants to sniff. Because I have already taken care of my own physical needs, I let her sniff while I listen to my favorite new podcast, Zen Parenting Radio. My parent coach friend Cathy (who is wise and funny and spiritual and wonderful) and her husband Todd (who is wise and funny and practical and wonderful) do a radio show together in Chicago on mindful parenting. The show feeds my soul on many levels – connection to an old friend, humorous recognition that all couples have similar quirks and daily challenges, and sage-like non-prescriptive advice packaged in an accessible thought-provoking half hour show. I am a better parent because I listen to this show. And a better wife. Maybe a better person.
I go to a bi-monthly mom’s group here on the island that similarly feeds my soul. This one is in-person and has an inspiring and knowledgeable guide at its helm who leads us in thoughtful discussion each time we meet. Moms of kids of all ages (and moms of all ages) show up to be real and honest and to think about ourselves in the bigger context of life, motherhood being just one aspect of who we are. It is an hour and a half of sacred time and it always gives me something to chew on for the week.
I could list other things I do for myself and the part of me that is now feeling exposed and indulgent must tell you that of course I am still doing all of the day-to-day stuff that needs to be done. My house is still clean, there are healthy meals on the table each night and all of the general household miscellanea is taken care of. And that’s just it – it is all still getting done and I am taking care of me.
And what if you are reading this and you are working a job in addition to being a mother or it’s just you working a job with crazy hours and you have no time to do these kinds of things? My first job as a teacher offered me little to no time for myself. Once my school work was finished, I was lucky if I had enough stamina to make it through an entire episode of Friends without passing out on the sofa. In those days, I had no one counting on me to make her lunch or get her to appointments or to cuddle her in the middle of the night if she had a bad dream. My busiest work times were before I had a child, but I know that for many parents, having a stretched work schedule coupled with the realities of parenting is their day-to-day reality. It’s ironic that the times when we need self-care the most are those in which we have the least amount of time to work it into our schedules. I have no advice to offer, but in hindsight, when I went through those times, there were people who stepped up and volunteered to help, but my pride kept me from accepting it. There were even more times when a nap would have served me more than doing two more loads of laundry, but I didn’t elect to take one. Every person’s reality is different, but for me, even when things were at their most hectic, there were opportunities to care for myself that I didn’t seize.
This is what I hope to convey: wouldn’t it be great if we all encouraged each other (regardless of the differences in our day-to-day circumstances) to take care of ourselves by sharing our stories of how we do so? I know I would feel better about taking that nap or spending thirty minutes reading a thought-provoking book if I didn’t often feel the pressure to prove how busy I am working or crossing off my to-do list. Why is it that in the same way we seem to like to share more bad news stories than good that we similarly reward all work and no play?
There will be time for me to figure out my next steps, but I’m in no hurry. The one thing that self-care has taught me is that I need to get to a place of wellness before I’m able to assess where it is I ought to be headed. And importantly, I’m enjoying where I am right now. I love writing this little blog, reading my books, listening to my podcasts, and attending my meeting and therefore I am present and able to love all of the rest of my life – being a mom, a wife, a daughter, a dog mom, a friend, a woman. Which is the better role model for my daughter: the harried martyr of a mom who loses her marbles when her kid vomits before date night? – or the mom who takes care of herself, who knows what she needs to feel like herself, who hasn’t lost herself in the process of giving? Which kind of woman do I want my daughter to be?
My long explanation of what I have been doing may be too much for someone who asks, but I know that I need to revise my answer from one of sheepish denial to one of proud embracing. It feels more honest and it feels like it honors my life in a way that rattling off my to-dos does not.
I’d like to get to this next rung on the ladder of self-care, the one where I feel okay about admitting that it’s alright to be good to myself. Perhaps you can join me and we can pinky swear that we’ll do this for each other – we’ll agree that it’s okay to talk about being good to ourselves and we won’t feel bad about it, not one bit. We’ll help each other get there and we’ll listen to each other’s truths about our journeys and give one another a boost when needed. I’m not sure yet what it looks or feels like to do this, but I imagine it’s the place where I want to be.