A couple weeks ago a dear friend from college came through town on a massive cross country road trip, and I was able to steal her away for a morning of coffee and a massage. Her sister in law, a mutual friend, commented to her as she was heading out of the house to meet up that “Jenny seems really good at self care,” which made me smile when I heard it.
Because I haven’t always been.
In my younger years of mothering, I routinely confused self care with productivity, and was forever transposing peace for performance. If a baby was napping, I was painting a piece of furniture, writing a blog post, loading the dishwasher or reading an academic article. If I had 2 hours till school pickup, we were at the gym where I was simultaneously answering work emails from my phone and speed walking on the treadmill while listening to a talk radio show.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of those things, but I had less self insight then, and couldn’t figure out why even when my house was super clean and my inbox was super well-attended too, I felt super burnt out all the time. I may have killed it in the housekeeping department on a given day, but I’d be snapping at my kids by 4 pm, having nearly killed myself getting there.
Because I was spending all the pockets of “free time” in my day being a good little soldier and attending to the to-do list, I was often coming to the end of a 12 hour shift of parenting feeling frazzled, joyless, and utterly spent.
I’ve come to realize in the past 7+ years of motherhood that as an introvert with a strong personality and intense feelings, I need a lot of silence in my day. Which seems incompatible with a growing brood of 4 under 7. But, as I’ve been learning, not impossible.
Instead of rushing around the kitchen kamikaze cleaning every square inch the moment the toddler drops down for his afternoon nap, I’ve had to teach myself to slowly make lunch, to (even more) slowly eat my lunch, and to spend some time reading, writing, praying, and mentally steeling myself for the afternoon.
I may sit down to a still-dirty lunch table for 30 minutes of catch up time online, ignoring the mess that once drove me to perfectionistic distraction, reminding myself that I am the master of these dishes, and that it’s more important that I be peaceful and present to my kids when we come back together than that the house looks perfect.
Maybe clutter isn’t your trigger, but we all have something that pulls at our attention, tugging at our sleeve to remain forever in Q1, sacrificing the greater good for the demanding present.
The physical clutter and chaos that comes with mothering many needn’t dictate my mood to me, however grumpy it makes me to see the sink piled high with dishes. I can delay that apparent immediate need and instead sit down for 20 minutes with a novel or my rosary, because waiting to do those dishes might mean very well presenting a calmer, saner mother to my kids for the entire afternoon.
Ironically, cleaning the house is actually a major way I practice self care, because I love cleaning. I like doing laundry, vacuuming, organizing and decorating. (And if anyone out there is a fan of cooking, grocery shopping, bathroom scrubbing or dish washing, come apply to be my sister wife.) But it has to be in moderation. I can’t clean all day and keep the house looking as if 6 people don’t inhabit it and expect to feel human by 6 pm. Not that I haven’t tried.
When hard pressed, I think most moms can name what it is that makes them tick, even if it’s not something they’re in the habit of regularly “indulging” in. And that concept is one I want to challenge you on: because self care is not indulgent, but essential.
Most priests (and I would imagine ministers of other denominations) take Mondays off in order to recover and regroup from the intense activity of Sundays. Nobody begrudges them this; it’s a natural enough action to designate some downtime to rest, recreate, and just plain take care of the mundane business of life.
Mothers don’t get a day off in any official sense, and so it falls to us to carve out the time with intention and resolve. Repeat after me: it is not selfish to take care of yourself. It is not self-indulgent to spend time away from your children in order to recharge and recalibrate. It is not frivolous to do things just because they make you happy.
I’m not sure where this attitude of shame surrounding self love comes from, but I know for one thing: it ain’t biblical. God doesn’t command us to love our neighbor to the inverse and opposite proportion that we despise/disregard/denigrate ourselves.
Nope. He commands us to love them. As we love ourselves.
I think it’s a lingering spirit of puritanical Manichaeism that tends toward the disregard – and even tiptoes up to the edge of disgust for – the physical body, and the female body in particular. Women often come into their mothering years with a misguided concept of gift of self that is conflated with self-anihilation. And not in a sanctifying, “I unite myself totally to You Jesus,” way, but in a sadistic “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” and “real mothers sacrifice everything (and I mean everything) for the sake of their children” kind of way.
Including their own well being, their mental health, and perhaps even their marriages.
Most guys I know are pretty adept at reading themselves and recognizing when they need to sit down with a cold drink and a few moments of silence. They have little difficulty deciding to take a couple hours to watch a game, spend time in nature, or grab a hot shower after a long morning of physical labor. They are refreshingly unapologetic in continuing to “indulge” in things that make their heart beat faster even once marriage and fatherhood have entered into the mix: craft small batch beer brewing, guitar playing, freelance writing, playing rugby, running half marathons, and coaching soccer. And that’s just me naming a handful of things my husband and his friends do for personal fulfillment, off the top of my head.
I want to invite my fellow members of the fairer sex take a page from these guys’ books and be on the lookout for things that make your heart sing. If you’ve always wanted to learn hand-lettering, put it in the budget and sign up for an online course. If you’ve been dying to take on a Holy Hour at your parish’s perpetual adoration chapel, strategize with your better half and come up with an evening once a week where you can slip away at 8 pm for some quality time with Jesus. If you were an amazing swimmer in high school, call up the gym or YMCA down the street and inquire about their rates and open swim hours. Hoping to start a blog of your own? Find a mother’s helper from your local homeschool co-op and spend 4 hours a week alone at a coffee shop with your laptop and a hot beverage.
When I show my kids that I have other interests outside of our life together as a tight little family unit, I am not robbing them of time spent with their mother, I am teaching them that their mother is a valuable, unique, and interesting person in her own right, and that each of us have something unique to offer the world, and something particular to us that brings joy and satisfaction.
God didn’t create us to toil away in unceasing drudgery to become holy through self neglect. He isn’t frowning down on us for applying mascara or booking a massage or painting our nails or applying to an MA program. He gave us gifts to share with the world, but also to bring us joy.
It is not selfish to be happy.
It is not selfish to take a shower while someone sits in front of a show for 30 minutes. It’s not criminal to leave your toddlers for an hour a week to go for a long, satisfying run. It’s not wrong to slip out of the house with a couple girlfriends for a glass of wine or a pint of kombucha a couple evenings a month.
Let’s teach ourselves to practice good stewardship of, well, ourselves. And let’s show our sons and our daughters, in so doing, that it is healthy, natural, and joyful to be a woman who knows what brings her happiness, and who takes pleasure in pursuing it.
Some ideas for self care for moms:
Book a 60 minute massage (look for local recommendations for an Asian or Chinese massage place, their prices can be killer compared to a spa or salon. Think $40 instead of $90+)
Go for a run
Hire a babysitter for 2 hours during the day to run errands/write/read/stare vacantly into space at a coffee shop. Feel zero guilt while doing so. Arrange a kid swap with a friend if the budget doesn’t permit a sitter, and buy a $1 coffee at McDonalds instead of a $4 latte at Starbucks
Get up 20 minutes early and take a good, hot shower and blow dry your hair
Go grocery shopping at night and tell your husband to plan for 30 or 40 extra minutes. Take a book or your Kindle, grab a kombucha or a fancy sparkling water, and sit in the parking lot and read before or after you hit the store.
Try a barre, zumba, or Pilates class at your gym
Join a gym. Especially one with reasonable childcare. Some are surprisingly affordable! Go some days just to walk on the treadmill, have a shower in peace, or make a long distance phone call without little peeps peeping in every 5 minutes.
Make a Holy Hour
Commit to a weekly/monthly Holy Hour
Shut yourself in your room and pray a Rosary while your kids play outside/watch Netflix
Buy a book you’ve been dying to read instead of waiting the 4 weeks on the library hold list
sign up for a night class at your local community college
Get to daily Mass once a week, even if you have to stand in the back with a raucous toddler
Put on real clothes and makeup for no other reason than it’s Tuesday, and you feel like giving your neglected non-activewear wardrobe some airtime
It needn’t be complicated, wildly indulgent, or expensive, but it ought to be on our radars as women, as friends, and as sisters. Let’s encourage each other to take care of ourselves, and let’s help the men who love us understand that we need to practice good self care in order to provide the best possible care for others.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:26-30)
The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11)