Self-Care: The Great American Lie

Being A Mother AND So-Called “Self-Care”

Wednesday nights are my weekly gamble. I never know what I’m going to get, and I’m never excited to find out. It is the one night a week my husband leaves just after dinner, leaving me about an hour and a half on my own with our three kids.

It sounds like such a non-issue when I write it out: an hour and a half. But you parents know this is the witching window of evening routine, where it feels like threading a potentially very labile needle – with great care and trepidation.

What transpires in this mere 90 minutes? Cleaning up dinner, clearing the table, making lunches, getting children upstairs to (sometimes) bathe, put on pajamas, brush teeth, and then “quietly” play until time to read stories and turn off lights. This lovely sequence is always punctuated by fighting with each other, arguing with me, getting distracted, needing me to say the same directives thirty times, cannon-balling off beds, screaming with glee, screaming with anger, throwing toys as a form of communication . . . the list goes on.

This recent Wednesday night, I did something I never do. I spoke up for what I needed in a radical gesture of so-called “self-care.”

It feels like this throwaway quick-fix phrase that doesn’t even begin to address what we really need to truly care about ourselves.

After the hectic rush of bathing/pajamas/teeth-brushing, I set a timer for my return so my 4-year-old didn’t have a total flip-out when I came upstairs later to put him to bed. I came downstairs for exactly 17 minutes of quiet, when seconds later my 9-year-old daughter trailed down the same stairs and emanated the glow of needing me, staring at me while standing in the middle of the living room.

She’s having some emotions. She needs my compassion and listening and patience and understanding. Or maybe she just wants my attention for no deep reason except for liking attention.

But guess what I did? I very calmly said to her, “I have been at work all day. I have barely sat down since I got home. I really need some quiet, alone time before I go back upstairs for bedtime. I think you understand because sometimes you need quiet, alone time too.”

She walked over to the couch and curled up, apparently not yet processing my message. “My dear, I need you to go upstairs.” She didn’t move, but I stayed calm and repeated myself a couple more times, and she finally went back upstairs.

The 7-year-old came down not two minutes later and said she had been told I did not want to be bothered. “Yes, that is exactly correct. I do not want to be bothered right now.” And she flitted back upstairs, un-phased after checking up on the veracity of big sister’s orders.

Why am I writing about this? Why is this a big deal? Because once I did it, I realized I never do this, and I don’t think any of my friends do either; if they do, they don’t mention it.

Usually the pull toward my daughter’s possible emotional needs dominates my brain and pushes out whatever else is telling me to “take care of yourself.”

Let me explain (even though I shouldn’t have to): on Wednesday nights, I have done two solid, full days of therapy back-to-back from 8:30 or 9:30 am until 6:00 p.m. I have been holding emotions and responding to the needs of others for most of my waking hours. Including for my children.

I have tried to accept that it is perfectly okay to be done. In fact, when I set that boundary this recent Wednesday, I’m pretty sure it saved me from totally losing it at bedtime, all of us enjoying the calm instead of the storm when it was time for lights out.

Maybe it’s just my social media feeds, but I’m constantly seeing articles about how stressed out moms are, and how we need to take care of ourselves better in order to take care of our children better. Just recently, an article was circulating about how the World Health Organization is adding “burnout” as a medical diagnosis. If you look at the definition of burnout, many American parents qualify.

As a psychologist working with children and their parents, I always ask parents about their own support systems and how they are taking care of their own needs. But I’m going to confess: I think self-care is a lie in the American culture of parenting. Yes, in theory making time for our own well-being is essential to our parenting. In practice, we are getting too many mixed messages for self-care to be purely practiced, or even practical.

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Again maybe it’s my own personal feed, but on the daily I see reminders of how our children depend on our compassion, patience, gentle voices, and infinite empathy to be healthy and kind people who feel secure.

I have been acutely aware of this shift towards high attunement to our children’s emotions (I have discussed this at length in The Problem with Positive Parenting and The Emotional Labor of Parenting), and I wonder if and how this can coexist with the practice of true self-care.

What exactly is “self-care?” I had a boss once (a psychologist) who loathed the term and winced every time someone uttered it. At first I thought this was a harsh response to a great concept, but with age and weathered wisdom, I think I get it. It feels like this throwaway quick-fix phrase that doesn’t even begin to address what we really need to truly care about ourselves.

In my early years of parenting, my “self-care” was sneaking away from my newborn for a guilt-ridden hour to get a pedicure. In all those pithy “top 10” lists in women’s magazines, you probably find ideas like dinner out with friends, a hot bath, lighting some lavender candles, or going for a walk.

These self-care activities feel good in the moment and are small steps that feel do-able for many of us (but not all, depending on the number of small children relying on you). But do they really add up to make a meaningful difference in our well-being?

I would propose that true self-care is a deeper shift of prioritizing our emotional and physical needs as mothers in a way that our culture fundamentally rejects. The accepted motherhood identity is intertwined with subordinating our needs to everyone else’s, and has been internalized across generations. Even as there have been shifts from June Cleaver to Claire Huxtable ideals, we are seeing everywhere the evidence of an unhealthy and relentless pressure on mothers to do all and be all.

On Wednesday night, I felt like I had to make a choice: either I respond to my daughter’s emotional needs at the sacrifice of my emotional well-being, or I ignore her to take what I needed. And that’s how it feels – TAKING, which feels selfish, which is against every cultural ideal of how a mother should be.

Those pesky guilt monsters tried to get me later when my daughter left our mother-daughter journal on my nightstand, and I read what had been bothering her. I spoke back – “Well, it’s good she used the journal to express what she needed to . . . I didn’t even have to tell her to do it. It’s good for her to figure out how to deal with her problems without always needing me in the moment.” I was talking back to the guilt, but out loud to my husband, who appeared skeptical. Maybe I saw the skepticism through the tint of my guilt-colored glasses.

I wrote back a long, thoughtful response to my daughter about friendships and growing up. I believe it was more heartfelt because I exercised my 15 minutes of “self-care” earlier in the evening. I even tried to mentally reassure myself that I had modeled for her what I hoped she could do in her own future of being a healthy mother, although maybe without the guilt. I think THAT would be true self-care.