The phrase “self-care” comes loaded with assumptions about who has the ability to care for themselves, and what kind of care is valuable. Exercise is virtuous. Devouring “Making a Murderer” in a single sitting is gluttonous.
Here’s a scene: It’s my daughter’s 2nd birthday party, and I’m standing in my Elmo-bedecked kitchen with three other mothers. We are balancing Elmo paper plates on our knees and clutching the necks of Sam Adams bottles. Our children, ages 2-4 years old, are happily tearing up the toy area of our living room, or scarfing a second piece of pizza, or (my kid) clinging to a parent while surveying the celebratory chaos from a higher vantage.
The mothers and I are having a confessional. We’re admitting the things we do that our past pregnant selves wag their subconscious fingers at—screen time allowances, bedtime bribery, a diet consisting 50% of fruit-and-veggie pouches bought from the store. It’s an irreverent conversation, the kind mothers have in solidarity, unified against the forces that make AAP-approved parenting impossible. We know that modern parenting follows the same principles of scarcity in economics—none of us have enough time or money to parent as we might if resources were unlimited.
OK, we agree, perfect parenting is off the table. I’ve nearly accepted that working full-time means my kid will have a Sesame Street-themed birthday party, and that French fries are considered a vegetable in our house. Our conversation now quietly turns toward that other, perhaps even more elusive expectation for mothers that has cropped up in recent years: a term cloyingly referred to as “self-care.”
In hushed tones at the playground, we ask one another, What are you doing for yourself lately? Are you practicing enough self-care?
When people look at my (lovely and gentle and observant) daughter and say, “Oh, can you even remember life before her?” I long to tell the truth. Yes, I do remember. I remember spontaneous dinners out with my husband, and hangover Saturdays, and binge-watching television while lying prone on the couch for seven straight hours, and daily writing in the afternoon right in the middle of my own living room, and spinning classes three times a week.
I remember, too, the sharp pinch of truth that I could simply go on forever that way, with those easy, pleasurable patterns, and feeling a fear that only passively accepting change, rather than pursuing it, would eventually hollow me out, leave me with a husk of self. I remember asking myself what it might take to help me move in the direction of the person I wanted to be. It’s the love of others that has always compelled me to my best, so I decided that I wanted to make change urgent in my life with the responsibility of bottomless love. Love for a child who would need me.
The list of things my friends and I have given up, even happily, in parenthood is long—knitting, leisure reading, Zumba classes, sleeping only with our partners in bed with us, therapy appointments. The danger of these sacrifices is, of course, the flip side of falling so totally in love with our children: None of us are adequately caring for our own minds or bodies. And the guilt about that is second only to the guilt of being the World’s Okayest Moms.
When fitness competitor and entrepreneur Maria Kang shared a photo of her flat abs, toned and tanned thighs, and three young sons, and asked the rest of us, “What’s Your Excuse?” I honestly didn’t know how to answer her. My daughter was three months old at the time, and I was, in fact, wondering when I’d feel like going back to the gym I’d visited almost every day of my pregnancy, including the day of my induction. I surprised the nurses by getting into a downward-facing dog around hour 39 of my labor, just before my unplanned c-section. But after my daughter was born, I was so exhausted by parenting that I went on medication to deal with the anxiety I once used spinning classes to cope with, and counted breastfeeding as exercise. When I did get an hour to do some “self-care,” I took a nap or a shower.
The thing I’m struggling with is the privilege I detect when we implore mothers to make “self-care” a priority. This is because the phrase comes loaded with assumptions about who has the ability to care for themselves, and what kind of care is valuable. Exercise is virtuous. Devouring “Making a Murderer” in a single sitting is gluttonous.
We applaud the mother who has time to work out, or get her hair done, or clean the house during her child’s naptime because we value the ways women care for themselves and their homes in service of others. But when she chooses instead to crawl back into bed with her phone and some earplugs, we question whether she’s self-sacrificing enough to be a mother in the first place.
The principles of scarcity mean that, for most of us, the benefits of one choice come at the cost of something else. Because I can neither afford a gym membership, nor the added cost of childcare to use one, I have started to work out for 15 minutes a day using the Momma Strong program. These 15 minutes are usually bought with screen time for my 2-year-old, who would otherwise be climbing my legs and pressing the keys of my laptop. This is the part I only admit in certain company—to prioritize myself means moving my daughter temporarily down a notch.
This is, I think some will agree, probably not a bad thing. It’s healthy for my daughter to see me exercising in a fun, low-pressure way, and it’s ultimately better for my parenting when exercise pays off in less anxiety and more adrenaline. I’ve also started keeping a book out and occasionally picking it up and reading it in front of my daughter during the rare times she’s playing independently. Deep down, I know it’s good that she points to it and says, “Mama’s book!”
But this runs counter to a culture with enormously high, often contradictory expectations for parents—that we stimulate our children’s minds and never ask Mr. Rogers to take a shift, that we foster independence in our kids and never let them out of our sight, that we parent with a child-centered approach and don’t let our own needs go unmet.
One friend described going to a yoga class and listening to the instructor discuss the difficulty of “pouring from an empty cup.” Meaning, we can’t perform at our best when our resources—time, sleep, financial security, physical well-being, emotional fortitude, etc.—are depleted, and that it’s important to keep the cup filled.
“I think so many times in motherhood we HAVE to pour from an empty cup,” my friend said. “I sometimes feel guilty that I am able to, and that I do send my kids to [day]care on a day I’m not working.”
My friend recognizes that the privilege of “self-care” is not one all mothers have equally, or at all. To tell a mother struggling to make ends meet that she should hit a yoga class, or have lunch with a friend, or go to the movies is to dismiss circumstances that make filling her cup impossible, another job she can’t do the way she might want.
But even when a parent does have the privilege of “self-care,” she might face judgment both for using it, and for using it in ways that aren’t visibly about improving herself. Another friend, who moved away from “the village” of her family back home, sometimes pays for a hotel room to rest and replenish from a life of staying home with her daughter. She says that those who remain close to their own families aren’t always sympathetic to this because they have no need themselves of a hotel room—an abundance of free babysitters makes “self-care” more readily available in their daily lives.
“With kids, though, suddenly people are expected to fend for themselves,” my friend said. “I know it’s true in other big cities/high cost of living areas, too. We pay for our villages or we don’t have them.” She also described the “eye rolls” of those who see a hotel room alone as a frivolous use of her privilege.
It’s time to reinvent the meaning of “self-care”—to honor the diversity of activities (or non-activities) that fill our cups. It’s also time to recognize that, for many mothers, the cups simply stay empty, and it’s our collective responsibility to help fill them. We can do this with our votes for politicians who actually make families a priority, but we can also do with our compassion. We can look the economics of parenthood in the face. For most of us, caring for ourselves means living with a barter system.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.