Ever since my baby was born, my friends have been telling me to remember “self care.” I don’t even know what this is. I’m not kidding – I have no idea what people mean. A few people have given me gift cards for manicures and massages, but they’re just piling up. I know that sounds ungrateful, but I’ve never been a girly girl and “spa services” make me uncomfortable. So if I’d never had a manicure before I got pregnant, why would I want one now?
I’ve also heard that “self care” means to sleep when the baby sleeps, which seems impossible. That’s when I pay the bills, make phone calls, or prep for dinner — stuff that just needs to get done. Other things people tell me: to spend a few hours each week on an old hobby (ha ha ha), go to Mommy & Me Yoga (that is so not going to happen), and dress nicely every day (excuse me while I scrub the milk dribbles off my shoulder).
Motherhood has been a huge and hard adjustment for me, and I know my friends are trying to help. But I’m pretty sure their versions of “self care” would not feel like care at all, and would waste the tiny amount of free time that I have. So please help me understand: What is self care? How can I find something that feels rejuvenating instead of exhausting and pointless?
Ah, the sweet, sweet sound of unsolicited advice. Most new mothers are used to friends, family, and even strangers telling them the right (and wrong) way to take care of a baby. What’s more surprising is when people advise you how to take care of yourself. That advice can come in the form of a friendly conversation, a surprising phone call, or good old-fashioned finger wagging. And sometimes it’s a gift card, which is lovely and generous, but not always helpful.
I myself did not amass a pile of gift cards, probably because my friends knew I would only regift them. Just the thought of putting my bare foot near a stranger’s face makes me cringe. And the idea of my round, post-birth body lying naked on a massage table – um, no. So I soldiered on, trimming my nails when they began to resemble claws, pulling my hair back into a ponytail every day, and showering only twice a week. Meanwhile, I became very attached to cookies.
Eventually I realized that I was feeling deprived, which explained my slovenly personal hygiene and a raging sugar addiction. In fact, I felt deprived of two things: self-maintenance and self-indulgence, which – surprise! – added up to self care.
It was a light-bulb moment for me. So that’s what self care was! My family and friends were all focused on the maintenance part – nutrition, haircuts, and claw removal being just a few examples. I knew that maintaining (caring) for my body was important. It just didn’t feel indulgent to me – even though it did to most of my friends. So I would have to get my self-indulgent fix elsewhere, preferably not in the cookie jar.
All those hours of rocking and pacing and midnight nursing gave me time to think, and over time I realized that – for me – the second part of self care was all about indulging my senses. Yup, that cookie tasted good. But so did roast chicken, and apples, and pizza. As for my sense of hearing, I began playing my favorite music more than watching TV. I opened the curtains and looked at the sky. I pulled my fuzzy blanket off my bed and wrapped it around my shoulders. And although I’d like to say that I enjoyed smelling scented candles, I have to confess that my nose was happiest sniffing a bag of Doritos. (Don’t judge.)
Even now, years later, just writing that list makes me close my eyes and smile. Indulging my senses made me feel alive, smoothed over the sharp edges of postpartum depression, and made chronic exhaustion more bearable.
So, dear Careless, ignore other people’s definition of self care – including mine if it suits you. You might need to experiment to find the magic formula that keeps you feeling hopeful and indulged. But if you’re looking for a place to start, try indulging your senses. Listen to music, look at nature, taste – really taste – something delicious, feel something luxurious. Smell deeply (even Doritos if you must). These are small things that don’t require gift cards or time or your friends’ approval. If it isn’t your senses that need indulging, how about simple pleasures? A stack of magazines, a long-neglected book, or a couple of hours of TV time can provide a much-needed mental vacation. And while you’re at it, don’t forget “self maintenance.” Take a shower. Go for a walk. Eat an apple. And yes, absolutely get some sleep however and whenever you can, even if the bills go unpaid.