I Have a Bone to Pick with “Self-Care”

It was a few weeks ago that I walked into my therapists office feeling a lot exhausted and a little deflated. I had been bogged down by this annoyance throughout my day, and I felt weird when I was finally able to verbalize it.

“I am just so sick of self-care!!” I heard myself say out loud to my therapist.

I think I half expected her to judge me. It had to be me, I was in the wrong for feeling this way about such a positive practice.

I guess I thought it probable that the self-care movement that has swept various social media platforms had been invented by therapists, and certainly must be endorsed by them. I thought she’d at least tell me that I must be doing something wrong if I wasn’t feeling the magical healing effects from self-care.

Instead, my therapist, a young mom of two like me, nodded her head in understanding, and asked me to explain a little more.

This is kind of what I told her…

As a mom, I often get told to take care of myself first. Put my metaphorical oxygen mask on before helping my children, help myself so I can help others. I’m told I’ll be a happier mom if I put myself first. A better mom.

And I get it, I really do. I know I’m my best version of myself when I practice great self-care. I’m sure I would be a fantastic mom if I could go to hot yoga three times a week, meditate daily, eat a whole food plant-based diet, have both quality time with friends and quality solo time weekly, get regular hair cuts, and travel abroad at least once a year. These are all things I’ve identified as my own personal brand of self-care. They fill my bucket, and make me feel whole.

But, you see, there’s that one tiny problematic word in there…IF.

That day in my therapists office, I found myself griping about the lack of time that is available to me for self-care. I asked her what to do when you just don’t have the hours or even the minutes to tend to your own body or mind because you’re too busy tending to those of small humans who depend on you for everything. What if the things that fill your cup are literally impossible with kids, like frequent travel abroad or long hours alone?

I told my therapist that the whole idea of self-care overwhelmed me at times. It felt like just another thing to add to the never ending list of things moms are responsible for. As a result, it feels like just another thing I fail at when I don’t check it off that list.

But am I alone in thinking this way? The only one for feeling even MORE mom guilt for not taking care of me? For not feeling fully gung-ho about the self-care movement?

It was after my rant that my therapist mentioned a term that I had never heard but that felt SO TRUE. She said, “Sometimes self-care isn’t what toxic wellness tells us it is.”

TOXIC WELLNESS?? It seems contradictory to say, but it turns out there’s a whole body of opinions on the toxic wellness industry.

Technically, wellness and self-care are a little different. Wellness is generally perceived as having to do with fitness, health, and diet, literally defined as “the state of being in good health”. Self-care could be any number of things that makes a person feel taken care of, but I think there’s a stereotypical version of self-care we women are fed that tends toward things like pedicures, bubble baths, and glasses of wine. I also believe that self-care is generally perceived as necessary for wellness.

I know you’ve seen them, those posts of women in glorious, foaming bubble baths or boomerangs of toasting a glass of rosé, with #selfcare attached to the photo somehow. And I’m not saying these women are wrong. I, too, love pampering!

My problem with this image of self-care for us mamas is threefold:

One, what if these things don’t fill your cup up? What if you like pedicures, but you leave them feeling just as used up as before and return to your family craving something more? What if your brand of self-care is something else entirely? How do you get what you need if all that’s being offered is this one-size-fits-all brand of self-care?

And two, what if you don’t have time for these things? “You just have to make time” is an easy enough thing to say, and you can tell a mama that she has to take care of herself first until you’re blue in the face, but the reality is that because of our society’s glorification of nuclear families, many of us live far away from any family to help. Because of lack of societal support for new families, many parents can only afford for one parent to work or pay excessive fees for childcare so a babysitter is out of the question and the working parent is too burnt out to take over for a while.

(And please don’t tell me that if you can’t handle children, you shouldn’t have them. NOBODY was meant to handle children like this.)

Finally, and this goes back to the fact that self-care might just end up feeling like another tick on our already-full lists of to dos…why does it fall on the mama to be responsible for caring for herself? Well, you might say, how could she expect someone else to be responsible for her? After all, SHE’S the one who has the kids! But historically, the world’s cultures have had systems for supporting mamas, especially new ones. In China , women rest in their pajamas for at least 30 days after birth. In many Latin American Countries , women participate in “la cuerentina”, where they stay inside for 40 days, largely made possible by help from other females. When did we move away from supporting mothers, and subsequently families, as a whole culture? It sometimes seems impossible to even initiate some personal self-care because I’m too dang tired!

So to say I’m a little bit burnt out on self-care might be an understatement, I’m realizing as I type. I’m downright angry at it!

Self-care and wellness as we know it seems impossible to maintain in our current societal state. Which makes it seem rather burdensome to me. Which seems to defeat the whole purpose of it.

My therapist did have a few words of comfort for me. I complained about feeling guilty missing workouts, and she recommended feeling good about the ways I moved move body in any given day. Did I hike, walk, or even simply chase my kids around? That all matters. She explained that our conventional ideas of working out don’t discount other ways of doing so.

My therapist also commented on my complaint about not having time for self-care. She said that self-care might look very different with young kids. Some days it may mean simply getting our basic needs met. Some days it may just mean putting a bra on. It may mean a deep breath outside. She commiserated with me that our society doesn’t facilitate easy self-care, and that sometimes as moms we just have to adjust our expectations (can’t easily travel to Europe every year!). It won’t always be this way. Finally, she validated me that the whole idea of feeling like you’re doing self-care wrong might be a problem with the culture of it, not the mama.

So, taking my therapist’s words to heart, I’ve kind of been experimenting in letting go of self-care and wellness, or at least the world’s (and Instagram’s) definition of it.

And let me tell you guys, it’s been so freeing.

Some of our recent self-care excursions

Rather than feel the pressure to do an intense workout daily while my kids linger bored in the sidelines, I’ve been taking them for long hikes or walks. No time limit, no goal, except exploring and enjoying the great outdoors with them. It is so SO nice to just be in nature’s beauty, and carrying an 18 lb infant up and down even slightly slopes ends up a pretty good workout! Hiking is quickly becoming one of our favorite pastimes.

Rather than feeling guilty about missing a daily bubble bath, or meditation, or gratitude journaling (and please don’t get me wrong, I LOVE these things, believe in them, and feel my best when I do them regularly), I am trying to be grateful for the days I can get all of it done…and grateful for the things I can do when I can’t! Recognizing that, for many of the days in this season of life, maybe the self-care I need is simply eating before I get the shakes, drinking enough water…and not worrying about self-care!

The last self-care tip that I’ve really embraced, probably the most lasting impression my therapist, who I have had to stop seeing because she had to get a new job, is this: just PEE already, mama! Seriously, my therapist explained that our bodies get a certain sense of urgency when we have to use the bathroom, which can translate to impatience and anxiety. For me, this impatience can actually trigger rage feelings! know I’m not the only mama who holds her bladder all dang day, and you wouldn’t believe the emotional relief I get from just emptying my bladder! The few minutes alone in the bathroom are a plus!

So there you have it, mamas. My beef with self-care. I know I’ve touted self-care before on my social media channels, before I truly thought about it or felt these consequences of the growing self-care movement. And it’s not bad, it’s meant to be good and helpful! I’m just here to say, like usual, if you’re not feel so cared for by the self-care movement…you’re not alone!

Do you have any gripes about self-care or wellness? Do you find it helpful to consider your own self-care, or burdensome? What do you consider self-care for yourself??