I am bad at self care. Like, really bad. So bad that sometimes other people have had to step in and separate me from situations because I overload myself and don’t know I’ve done it until I’m a quivering ball of anxiety-ridden tears. I don’t know how to step back. I don’t know how to stop. And I most certainly don’t know how to say, “I need a break!”
I carry a lot of guilt over saying no to people or taking time just for me. I grew up with the idea that the hallmark of a good person was someone that gave everything they had and every bit of spare time to benefit other people. Anyone that took time for themselves was selfish, especially anyone that had a vagina. Free, unproductive time was for children, and then only if they were not at home. The weird thing is it was never outright said. It was lived. It was in the way the adults spoke of my sisters when they came home from work after school and went to lie down instead of doing chores. It was in the snide comments when my mother lay down with a migraine. It was in the way as I sat down my parents would start with, “But have you done XYZ?” It was in the way that fun time outside of the home was frowned upon for older teens and adults. And horrifically, I started to think the exact same things. I, too, started to frown on any relaxing time or projects not only in myself, but in other people. Didn’t they know there was work to be done?
As I left the nest, the feelings of judgement of others died away. I understood that other people needed time for relaxing, but I couldn’t grant myself the same. When I went to college, I felt guilt over time I took for myself. Any time. If I took a ten minute nap before my next class, or dared to want to eat something decent before I started in on my homework, guilt, guilt, guilt.
As an adult, the feelings continued, and the idea was still pervasive. When my children entered school, a teacher once asked me to bake a pie for a class party. I did. Big mistake. That one, simple act signalled to the other parents and teachers that I was a willing parent that had time on my hands. Neither was particularly true, but before I knew it, I was roped into being on the PTO board, class mom, reading tutor, teacher lackey, and bringer of baked goods. Some of the teachers I volunteered under even lent me out to other teachers that didn’t have volunteers of their own! And I couldn’t say no. More and more was piled upon me, and I never said a word. After all, that mom over there was at school helping way more than I was, and that mom down the hall ran the yearly festival, was a field trip chaperone, organized all the volunteers, and was still at every single school function. How could I say no to taking just one more little thing?
At first Husband was supportive, but eventually, he saw the toll it was taking. The other parents at the school were constantly saying that good parents helped. Unselfish parents made sure they attended every program. They were quick to name who they considered bad parents, and complained about them constantly. “Can you believe little Johnny’s mom didn’t take off work to see him get his perfect attendance award? How selfish it is of Timmy’s father to not take a half day to help with the festival!” And I followed along, afraid to look bad. Afraid to look selfish. I even watched them absolutely rip apart another mom that had stepped down from so many hours, so many years of volunteering under the orders of her doctor for what the overload was doing to her health. She, too, was apparently selfish and it was just so horrible that she had not given advance notice of stepping down. In reality, she told them 8 months prior to the point where she would be stepping down, to give them time to find someone to replace her, and after that gradually stepped back. Last I checked, she still devoted some of her time there, so as to not be one of those parents. That’s kind of insane.
The next school year, when the volunteer paperwork came home, Husband, knowing what it was doing to me, snatched away all the papers, checked a big ole NO in every box, and sent it back. He did it because I couldn’t say no. So he did it for me.
At home, I still couldn’t get the whole self care thing down. If I took any time for me, the guilt came back. Big time. The guilt was spurred on by family members, half of which had decided I was a failure for not doing anything at the moment with my college degree, the other half decided I was a failure because my home was not the sparkling white utopias their homes were. Neither side was particularly afraid of telling me what they thought.
I spent a lot of time trying to get too much done in one day. So much, in fact, that I pretty much mentally paralyzed myself to the point I was unable to focus. A task that should have taken me 10 minutes suddenly took over an hour. I would spend the whole day cleaning house only to realize I had accomplished nothing, but it didn’t matter. I had to keep plugging along, devoting as much time as possible to being a good wife, a good mom. Time for myself was not something I allotted. If I crafted, I crafted for other people or things for me that had a purpose. If I read, it was on useful topics. Every bit of my day was for someone else. If I sat down to read a pleasure book, or peruse an article, I felt a pervasive, heavy sense of guilt over what I could be doing with my time instead.
And eventually, I burnt out. Being the good wife, the good mom, the good friend, the person that everyone always went to with needs broke me. Every small request felt earth shatteringly stressful. Every time the kids misbehaved, I felt like I failed as a parent. If I didn’t get this or that done in the house, well, that’s clearly my failure as a wife. It got to the point when I felt bad more than good, and I just wanted to give up. My anxiety, which had been low level for such a long time, went through the roof. I didn’t understand how other people were doing the exact same things that I was, and were perfectly fine. What was I missing?
At the same time as I was feeling like a failure, my Facebook feed (not this one, my vanilla one. The one where I actually don’t talk about sex. I know, I think it’s weird, too) was filled with mom friends posting article after article, from different authors and different publications, all with the same theme: you should relish the chaos of motherhood. You should be happy for those sleepless nights! You should grab on to every single second of childhood, immerse yourself in it, because this will never come again! Oh, and don’t forget to support your husband. He needs your love and care, too. So go, Mom! GO GO GO! These posts would always be followed by my mom friends making comments like, “Oh, I needed to hear this!” and “So inspiring!” and “ABSOLUTELY TRUE!!!!” And I felt even worse. How could I possibly throw myself into this whole caring for others thing even further without absolutely collapsing? And now, looking back, I realize all of those articles were missing something so very important: sometimes people need to stop and care for themselves, too.
The guilt I felt at taking care of myself robbed me of something so very fundamentally important for my mental and physical well-being. It dawned on me that taking care of myself, and at times allowing others to care for me, saying no, or even backing out of situations and arguments when I felt too exhausted to continue wasn’t selfish. It’s fucking necessary. I started adding in little bits of self care here and there. Nothing major, but just giving myself permission to do little things just because I want to do them. Allowing myself to go out to dinner with a friend. Taking a few minutes to paint my nails. Spending twenty minutes on the yoga mat. Going for a walk. These small changes made all the difference in the world. I’m healthier. I’m happier. I know that some times it’s OK to say no. It’s OK to take time for me. Not only is it OK, it’s SUPER IMPORTANT! I am a better wife, better mom, better friend, better human when I take time for me. I’m even more productive when I am!
I figure if I’ve had problems with this, it stands to reason that other people have, too. So I did what any self-respecting blogger would do. I interviewed some truly awesome authors, sex educators, and professionals to get their take on self care and why it’s so important. I’ll be going through all of what they said in part 2 of this post.
In the meantime, lets get self care on the map. Let’s remind people that self care is so important. Get your typity-type fingers over to social media and use #SelfCare and #SelfCareIs (or any variation that you want that gets the idea across) and talk about what self care is to you. Talk about what you do for self care. Talk about why self care is so vitally important. Let’s get the word out. Let’s remind people that self care isn’t shameful, it’s not selfish, it’s not wrong. It’s fucking necessary.