There is no shortage of people promoting self-care. There is also no shortage of people who recognize the absurdity of expecting the vast majority of parents and guardians, folks working two or more jobs, and those who don’t have luxurious items and amenities to take quiet secluded baths, practice meditation uninterrupted in organic cotton loungewear on silk pillows surrounded by smokeless soy candles infused with local herbs, enjoy long walks in perfectly perfect secluded woods, and to have time to sit and savor a glass of wine (as opposed to gulping a large sip between stirring the food in the pan, making sure the kids don't draw on the walls, and retrieving the floor vacuum from under the couch...again)
Whether you are a health care worker (mental, behavioral, or medical), teacher, cashier, mail or package deliverer, work in an office, work on your feet, sit all day, live with people or you are someone struggling with living alone (or some combination of all those things)- all of those warnings thrown at us about making sure we take care of ourselves, especially during a pandemic, hit like bricks. If we don't have the time to "self-care" like gurus, specialists, influencers, and bloggers tell us to, what are we supposed to do?
Many years ago, there was a show called ER about the lives of doctors and nurses working in a Chicago emergency room. I recall little about the show except one scene in which one of the main characters, Carol, played by Juliana Margulis, enters her bathroom after what was presumably a very long day (or night) and sits on the edge of her claw foot tub. She slowly reaches over and turns on the water. The water flows out of the faucet. The tub begins to fill. It was a deliberate scene, filmed in a way that paid particular attention to the heaviness in her shoulders and the routine around preparing the bath. I recall the scene, partially because I loved the look of the bathroom with its claw foot tub, but also because I recall the sadness and beauty of how it was filmed. The way the show used lighting and the simply slow act of turning on water to fill a tub as a way to show the other life of the person whose high-demand, stressful life in the ER was the primary focus. The scene was filmed so well that it is literally the only thing I remember from the show. I didn’t even remember the name! I spent most of the time researching this piece looking under Grey’s Anatomy.
For the character in the show, it wasn’t a quick scrub up and get clean before making dinner for the kids and checking that homework was done. It was luxurious, slow, and the character appeared fully present. Perhaps I remember the scene because I was envious of her in that moment, because those kinds of moments were not ones that I made for myself.
Self-Care: My first time
I was much younger when that scene was filmed. It was on air from 1994 to 2009 so the scene could have been filmed anytime from the time I was a sophomore in college until I was about 34. Anything that may have looked like self-care, say the many years of focused exercise, was fueled by my discontent with how I looked and a drive to fit into a narrow standard of beauty I adopted early in my youth. It was never fun for me. Even during yoga, I mostly competed against others in the room, pushing myself to be better than this person or that person rather than enjoying the experience. It wasn’t until 2016, when I stayed at a hotel for a business trip that recall my first true self-CARE moment. My room had a modern deep tub with jets and a separate glass enclosed shower across the massive bathroom (I have no idea why this hotel had such a gorgeous bathroom in the regular ole’ room I booked for myself). I had one of the hardest days I ever experienced professionally. I was very upset and after venting to my spouse over the phone, I marched into the bathroom and decided I deserved to shut down. I don't remember ever doing that before.
It wasn’t too long after that I started a meditation practice. I practiced listening to the birds. I practiced thinking about anything but work, responsibilities, or the person I thought I should be. The first time I tried this, my hand shot out to grab my phone within 10 seconds of shutting my eyes. In about 5 months, I was able to sit for close to 45 minutes, screen free, before starting my day.
Self-Care: No time
It was around that time that I started graduate school again and at some point I stopped waking up early to meditate. I was too tired.. I tried increasing my steps or exercising periodically during the next 3 years, but I was rarely successful. I was too busy. Less and less time was devoted to me as I spent more and more time devoting myself to everything I had to do to support my family emotionally, to keep ABAC growing, to immerse myself in my research. I felt bad that I wasn’t doing enough of the things I felt I was supposed to be doing based on what I perceived others like me did to “take care of themselves.” I sat way too much, played puzzle games on my phone too much, watched too much tv with the kids, spent too much time on social media, I showered in hot water too much, I drank too much coffee and wine and I certainly didn’t get anywhere near enough sleep. I wasn’t doing enough yoga, didn’t take enough steps, didn’t drink enough water, didn’t stand enough, didn’t write enough, didn’t meditate enough, didn’t engage spiritually enough, didn't...well do enough of anything that met popular standards of self-care (Google "Self-Care"...you will see what I mean). On top of it all, I gave myself a hard time about all of it.
Eventually, I got pretty sick of telling myself I wasn’t doing enough of what I perceived I should be doing based on what society seemed to be telling me (This isn't the only expectation I got sick of pigeonholed into in the past three years). I finally took the time to recognize that I was still smiling, still strong, still succeeding, and still full of love, silly, and laughter. I was just getting there on a different path. I finally decided that the time I spent watching shows with my kids, playing puzzle games on my phone in the middle of the day when I should have been working, scrolling through pictures of beautiful, architecturally unique lofts on Instagram, posting on Facebook, or listening to EDM while working, were activities that were good for ME. They kept me smiling, kept me strong, and kept me going. And damn, I really don't think I would have gotten through 2020, including writing a dissertation, without them.
Self-Care: My time
It is 2021. I am older and finally wiser. I no longer get angry at myself for not doing “those things.” I don’t feel terrific about my lack of exercise or the amount of coffee I consume but rather than telling myself that I am wasting time when I feel like playing my puzzle games when I take a break, I take a deep breath and acknowledge that it is okay that I feel like this is the break I want to take. When I make breakfast and read the paper when I should be heading into the office, I remind myself that taking this time will make me more productive later. And when I find myself thinking about my dream loft space or wondering what is going on on social media, I give myself that time without judgement. I tell myself- this is what I need right now.
Maybe one day, in my lovely dream shower and bathroom in my fabulous dream loft, I will have a "self-care" end of day ritual that involves drawing steamy lavender scented baths, but until that time, I will stick with being okay with self-care being whatever the heck I feel like doing at any time.