“If I go out on a run,” I said. “I am taking time away from my family. If I say I need a break — to shower or sleep or simply pee alone — I feel pathetic and selfish. I mean, what kind of person asks for time to shower? I just feel so guilty. Sometimes I … I …”
I paused. I paused because my thoughts were manic, because the “right” words escaped me, and because the more I let myself go on, the worse the I felt.
I paused because I felt selfish.
So I stopped. I leaned back, and I sipped on my lukewarm iced coffee.
However, my therapist didn’t let the silence the linger. “Let me ask you something,” she began. “Do you think I am selfish for putting my children in daycare while I work?”
“No,” I replied. “Of course not!” And I didn’t. I truly didn’t. I mean, we mothers all have things to do. Aside from parenting, many of us work and keep up with the house. We pay the bills, cook most meals, and keep things clean. We keep life in “working order.”
“So what makes you so different?” she asked. “Why … ”
She kept speaking, but her words trailed off. Scratch that: her words were swallowed by the voices in my head. By the sounds of my own mind.
Because you should be able to keep it together, but you can’t. Because you are weak. Because you are not trying hard enough. Because you are not working hard enough. Because you are not doing enough.
You are not enough.
“Have you ever considered that maybe — just maybe — your actions aren’t selfish?” I heard her say just then. “Maybe eating a full meal and getting six straight hours of sleep is self-care?”
Hell no, I thought. I’m a wife, a writer, a runner, and a mother. I have no time to take care of myself. I don’t have time to focus on me.
But in my heart, I knew she was right. Damn it, she was right.
Because the truth is, I would never hold anyone else to these absurd standards. I would never see someone else as selfish if they asked for a few minutes to meditate or if they wanted to head out to a movie alone. But that is because I know everyone needs to take care of their health — i.e. their physical health, their spiritual health, and their emotional health. Everyone needs to nurture their body and their being. Well, everyone except me, apparently, because for some reason I feel like a failure if I am not superhuman; I feel guilty about the very idea of taking time for me. The thought of heading out on a work trip fills me with angst and asking for alone time feels ludicrous.
For some reason, I feel as though I need permission to step back.
But here it was: my therapist giving me permission. My therapist was turning a negative word and ideology into a positive and potentially life-saving idea: self-care. And while the idea of self-care is far from novel — if you’ve ever been on a plane, you know you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you help others — it was a concept I struggled with. (It is a concept I still struggle with.) But I was desperate. I was burning out, because I was burnt out, I was angry and ill-tempered.
I was full of resentment and did things out of spite, and while I wasn’t a bad mom, I was far from the mother I could be.
I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be.
So I asked her how I could take care of me. How could I be mindful enough to take care of myself while combating the detrimental “I’m just being selfish” thoughts?
She advised me to start small. Start by eating three full meals, and by showering every day. She suggested I try and get some sleep every night. Then she asked me to think about what I liked — to rediscover what it was I loved — and carve out time to do it at least once a week. (Not a lot of time, but something because me time was my medicine.) And then she advised me to check my feelings. To check in on myself. Was I feeling nervous or angsty? Was I feeling scared or hopeless? Was I feeling empty or hollow or simply unloved?
If so, was there a reason? Was there something I was failing to do? Did I have a basic human need I was neglecting? Did it all come down to a need to pee (and be) alone?
So now when I feel myself slipping, I stop, take a breath, and assess the moment.
When I feel ugly and self-deprecating, I brush my teeth or hair. I paint my toenails with my daughter or I try to take a shower.
When I feel worthless and hopeless, I focus on the one thing that makes me feel good — the one thing that makes me feel worthy — my writing. (Or I strap on my sneakers and pound the pavement.)
When I feel nervous and scared, I stop and breathe. I stop and talk it out.
And when I feel lonely and unloved, I ask for a hug. A no-frills — but big — bear hug.
Make no mistake, it’s not easy. I still suck at asking for help, and listening to that little voice within is hard when my 3-year-old is tantruming at my feet, but I am learning to take breaks — and breaths. I am learning it is OK to ask for alone-time, or help doing the dishes. I am learning it is OK to live in a messy(ish) house and to let days off be just that: days off.
I am learning to check in: with my husband, and with myself.
Because when all’s said and done, a little bit of self-care (and selfishness) will not only make me a better woman, it will make me a better person, a better worker, a better wife, and a better mom.More On