Photo by Erik Putz
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but self-care is bullshit.
OK, not everything to do with self-care is bullshit, but a lot of it is, especially if you’re a woman, and even more so if you’re a mom.
The concept of taking care of yourself is a good one, obviously. Mental, physical, emotional, creative, spiritual—we all have needs, and it’s important to nurture these parts of ourselves. When people say “you can’t pour from an empty cup” or “put your own oxygen mask on first,” we know it’s true. We can’t take care of our kids if we’ve neglected ourselves. But often, it’s just not realistic.
Eat well. Sleep better. Meditate. Exercise. Journal. Drink lots of water. Do more of what you love and less of what you hate. Good advice? Sure. But that’s a long list. Self-care has become something to cram in between responding to work emails, schlepping to toddler swim lessons and making dinner.
The term “self-care” actually has roots in the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s. (There’s a frequently shared quote by Black American writer and activist Audre Lorde—“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”) But now the concept has become a buzzword used as a marketing tool to convince more privileged communities—partnered middle-class moms like me, for instance—that our stress will dissolve if we just find the right juice cleanse or charcoal sheet mask. It’s been trivialized into a hashtag on selfies and sponsored content posts, transformed into code for manicures and spa weekends and “mom-cations.” Green smoothies after yoga. A glass of wine at the end of a long day.
Honestly, a lot of these things really are amazing. I love manicures and own enough skin care products to open a store. I enjoy wine and (occasionally) practise yoga. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things, and hell, I want to do more of them. But this new definition of self-care sucks. It misses the mark by offering us something temporary and largely superficial, while our ongoing exhaustion continues to go ignored. There is no workout or pedicure that solves chronic sleep deprivation, adds dollars to your bank account or tacks on a few extra hours to your too-cramped day. Similarly, wine isn’t a cure-all. Even those who appreciate a good #winemom meme can agree it doesn’t alleviate the anxiety of unpaid bills or having a sick kid. It’s a distraction instead of a solution. This is the self-care that is privileged bullshit, and I’m over it.
Somewhere (actually, everywhere), there is a mom who hasn’t peed alone in months. Forget about a fancy vacation—she is desperate to sleep more than three hours at a time and would kill for an uninterrupted shower or a quiet morning at her own kitchen table with a coffee, a book and no kid requests. If she does unexpectedly get a few free hours, she spends them tackling the other long-overdue tasks on the list: sorting through her kids’ clothing drawers for the too-small stuff or sending thank yous from the birthday party that happened two months ago. She has a mental workload that never eases up and she’s tired of juggling it all.
Maybe her child has special needs or she’s a single parent or she suffers from anxiety or depression. Maybe she has a demanding job outside the home, has a disability, is caring for sick relatives or lives in poverty. She loves being a mom, but some days, the countless responsibilities that come with caretaking pile higher and higher. Tasks like getting groceries and doing laundry are never-ending, even if she’s somehow miraculously on top of everything else. This woman is drowning, and when someone finally notices, instead of lifting her up, they remind her of what she’s clearly neglecting—herself. And if she doesn’t have the time, energy or money to find a babysitter so she can hit the spa or sign up for fancy spin classes? There’s another area of life in which she concludes she’s getting a failing grade. Self-care: needs improvement.
Instead, we’re left feeling chastised or bombarded with “shoulds” and “why don’t yous” disguised as helpful advice. You should really try meal planning and Sunday batch cooking. Why don’t you get up early to meditate before the kids wake up? Excuse me, if a mother is already up twice in the night with the baby, and the toddler gets up at 6 a.m., is she really supposed to set her alarm for five and shave off precious minutes of shut-eye to chant? Unless that meditation session comes with free child care and a housekeeper, she’s going to end up pretty much exactly where she was before.
Give me a damn break. Give all of us a damn break.
I think it’s OK to admit our bar for self-care is low. A mom with a newborn might just want someone to hold her baby for 10 minutes (10 minutes!) so she can eat dinner while it’s still warm. Maybe, if we’re being completely honest, we actually just want a little time to get that dental cleaning, take ourselves to the doctor, go see a play or have an uninterrupted conversation with a friend.
While mothers are inundated with beauty serums and bounce-back-after-baby exercise programs, what about the dads? How have men escaped the pressure and the commercialization of self-care? They’re expected to work hard and play hard (and obsess over lawn care), which is reductive, old-fashioned and probably insulting to many guys. But they do get to drink beer with their buddies while society lets them rock that dad bod in peace.
I don’t want self-care to feel like such a chore anymore—so let’s take it back. I want old-school self-care: inclusive, achievable and community-based. That super cliché it-takes-a-village stuff that brings women together and helps families thrive. Volunteer to drive the neighbour’s kid to and from that birthday party so she has one less thing to juggle, and say yes when she offers to return the favour next week. Give help and allow yourself to receive it. Support your village in whatever way you can, but be OK with saying no when you’re overwhelmed. We’re designed to push through, but we don’t have to push ourselves to death. We’re allowed to slow down, to pause.
I’m still going to post my freshly painted nails on Instagram because there’s nothing wrong with that—but I’m not going to pretend my manicure lightens my load. For that, I’m looking away from my social media feeds and into the faces of the people in my actual village. And when they need me, I’ll be there for them, too.