By Jennifer Berney
Before I was a parent, I thought that I was a skilled at self care. In the hours I spent alone, I took pleasure in serving my body’s needs. I went for long runs; I cooked elaborate meals; if I was feeling low I put myself to bed early with a cup of mint tea and a hot water bottle. I treated myself like I was worth something, the same way you might treat a lover you wanted to keep around.
In a sense I was right—I was good at tending to my wants. But there was a deeper layer of self-care that I could not yet recognize, the kind of self-care where you speak up for your own needs even when you risk inconveniencing others.
When I was in my twenties, I spent some months working as a prep cook in a restaurant. The kitchen was small and my station was directly in front of the pizza oven which ran at 500 degrees. One day the hinge on the door broke and the door to the pizza oven would not stay shut on its own. I expected we might turn off the oven and make a sign that said No Pizza Today. Instead my boss produced a bungee cord, which he used to hold the door shut. The door, which was made of insulated steel, was remarkably heavy. I knew that bungee cords were strong, but I was pretty sure they weren’t infallible. I was worried that at some point, as I was spreading sauce on the pizzas with my back to the oven, the cord would slip and the heavy door would bust open and hit me on the back of my head. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Would my neck snap? Would I be knocked unconscious? Would I be carried away in a stretcher? I considered this for hours as I did my work, and yet I said nothing. I did not want to pester my boss.
It seemed that, though I was fine at caring for myself in solitude, I wasn’t so good at caring for myself in relationship to others. Other people’s needs trumped my own by default. This was and continues to be my problem. “I’m not comfortable with this,” or “I can’t help you with that,” are not words that leave my mouth easily. I know that I am not alone in this.
Self-sacrifice is one of the primary tenets in the lore of motherhood. Good mothers, we are often told, are selfless. Good mothers give up their desires, their aspirations and devote themselves wholly to the care of their children. They pack them bento boxes filled with healthy and colorful foods; they sew Halloween costumes by hand and pack towels when they go to the park so that they can wipe morning dew off the slides. In whatever time is left to them, they tend to their home and their marriage. They read magazines and books about how to do better. They exercise daily and watch their waistlines so they won’t be accused of “letting themselves go.” This narrative of the good mother is now the forty-pound oven door that is constantly poised to fall on my head. It is a set of expectations I could never possibly meet, a world I can’t survive in and so, ironically, it is motherhood that has pushed me finally to claim my own space, to state my own needs, to recognize that self care means more than an occasional night out or a long bath.
Self care means that even as I raise two young children, I try to give my own needs equal priority. Sometimes this approach feels ordinary, obvious—of course I should see myself as an equal member of my family rather than a servant. Other days it feels nothing short of radical. To remind myself of my own value, I’ve developed the following mantra:
–My job is to love and provide for my children, not to meet their every demand.
–My needs are as important as my partner’s needs.
–My needs are as important as my children’s needs.
–I am allowed to take up space in this family.
Self care in my house often means that laundry overflows from the basket and onto the floor because I refuse to use naptimes to catch up on housework. Self care means I’m okay with serving grilled cheese with carrot sticks for dinner three nights in a row if it means I have time to go for a walk. Self care means I’ve learned to utter uncomfortable statements like “I need help,” or “I can’t do that.” Self care means that my kids have learned to trust and love other grown-ups in their lives because I often carve out time to myself.
These days, our conversation on parenting seems focused on creating the perfect world for our children. We talk about how to balance their meals and manage their screen time, how to maximize their achievement at school and make them feel special at home. I wish that we talked more about how we tend to our own selves as parents, about how we sustain ourselves in the midst of unending demands. There are so many ways we can tend to our children—that work will never be done. But I’ve convinced myself that to love my children wholly I need to be whole. Being whole means that I too require tending, not just once a month or twice a week but every single day.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.