The Burden of “Self-Care”

Every time I turn on my computer I see some story or advice about the importance of self-care, especially for women.

We read about how Arianna Huffington is on us to get more sleep, which has the effect of keeping me up all night worrying about the bad things that will happen to me if I don’t. Or this doozy from Christiane Northrup where she advises caregivers to be sure to eat a balanced diet, get exercise and “indulge” themselves.

The job of taking care of aging parents can be a total life destroyer. It takes your money, your time, your ability to work, your friends, your relationships, your ability to do the things that you love, or to take a rest.

But I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for a celebrity doctor to remind us to take care of ourselves. It’s like telling someone wandering in the desert to be sure to drink plenty of water. It just becomes another impossible standard against which we’re bound to fail.

There’s a self-care cottage industry off of which lots of folks are selling books, magazines, politics, religion, and whatever else by perpetrating the “Do-It-Yourself” myth that we are each of us, alone, in charge of and responsible for ourselves and only ourselves.

The daughterhood experience feels like DIY on steroids. Caregivers are overwhelmed, doing a lot of hard work all by themselves. It’s easy for all of us to buy into the notion that this is how it’s supposed to be. You better pull yourself up by your bootstraps because that’s all you’ve got.

But let’s consider an alternative. What would it be like if we could take care of each other in an interdependent web? Communities that provide support through meeting places and groups where we can connect with other daughters (and sons). Financial support for adult day care and home care. Employers who understand and see themselves as part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.

So, the next time you feel like a failure, just remember: you’re doing a job that a strong social and community-based fabric is supposed to support. And instead of feeling like a failure, maybe just get a little mad that you’re doing it all alone.

But now that I’ve had my say about that, I’m going to indulge in a little self-help talk here. Rather than putting pressure on ourselves to take a break we can’t take, how about if we all just get really good at practicing extreme imperfection. Could this be the ultimate act of self-care?

Lately I’ve been obsessed by geniuses — great artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and what fuels their huge creative output and productivity. What’s really surprised me is that none of them were given any kind of smooth pathway to get their work done. These folks suffered. They got really tired. They were ignored. They were alcoholics, depressives and insomniacs. They had failed marriages, difficult children, chronic illness, fatigue. Yet, they went ahead anyway and did their thing. They got it done. Despite life’s imperfections – or maybe because of them, their lives became something beautiful.

In other words, they didn’t glide through life drinking tea, taking naps and rising for 5 am yoga. They just slogged through and got their work done.

There is, in fact, great valor in slogging. We’re slogging through the overwhelm everyday. But we’re getting it done. We ARE creating better lives for the people we love, despite the fatigue, despite the insecurities and long to do lists. Despite changing your Dad’s diaper twice a night. Despite the longing for retreat – for a quiet corner and a book.

But, we don’t retreat. And, this is no small thing. This is something big.

When a girlfriend and I were marveling at the challenges of parenting with post-partum depression (we both had it), we had a term for the feeling we had much of the time: “white-knuckling it.” But she said something that really buoyed me: A “white-knuckle” mom is still a really damn good mom.

So don’t let the self-care experts dupe you into thinking there’s another thing you need to do to be better. Because even though it doesn’t feel like it, if you are slogging through life, you are succeeding wildly at it.

Despite what our consumer culture would like to sell you, we aren’t promised good health in this life. We aren’t guaranteed any kind of feeling good. The expectation that you are will kill you a lot faster than sleepless nights.

Friends, in the end, what we most need and are missing is the support of each other, and our communities. If Arianna Huffington and her posse could focus on making sure we have health insurance, job security, and adequate funding for community centers and meals on wheels, we’d all sleep a little better.