Since becoming a mother over a decade ago, I have always felt overwhelmed by how “self-care” is marketed to me. A new lip gloss, a face mask, a fluffy bathrobe and slippers – these are all great items to have. I buy these things for myself when I need or want without a lot of guilt. But those and other luxury purchases like a massage or a day at the spa (two things I really like) don’t to define self care with me. Before I started writing about mental health, I earned a degree in counseling. That education and the caregiving experience that followed gave me a broader view of what caring for myself as a person should be like. I keep coming back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You’ve seen it in a textbook somewhere: that pyramid that shows how our most basic needs, like food, shelter, and sleep, must be met before any higher needs can be met. As a middle-class woman who grew up in a middle-class family, these needs were easily met my entire life — until I became a mother.
What do mothers really need to take care of themselves?
Maslow, an American psychologist who did most of his work during the 1950s and 1960s, was on the right track. There’s a reason why a new pair of flip flops or a fancy coffee doesn’t make me want to pamper myself, even though it does provide a monetary spark of joy. As mothers, our children daily destroy the bottom layer of the pyramid. They interrupt our sleep, often for years on end. We forget to eat or look for the remains of dinosaur nuggets left in divided plastic plates when they go to bed. It’s not really possible to meet the highest needs of the pyramid – called self-actualization – when we can’t meet our basic needs. When I started to look inward through this lens, I found that I was able to identify exactly how I needed to take care of myself. I needed to start treating my basic needs as a necessity, not a luxury.
Dr. Whitney Casares, a pediatrician who founded Modern Mommy Doc to support working moms, also has big feelings about the mismarketing of “self-care.” I asked her about my misgivings about the term and how it never sat well with me. Though some kids just won’t sleep and some days are rushed, she told me to start by setting some small boundaries in an effort to get my basic needs met first. “Make room for yourself. When you’re able to set boundaries for yourself, you can say, ‘I need a glass of water,’ or ‘I need a five-minute break,'” she says. “Take care of yourself when you are going through a difficult time.” It may seem impossible to sit down and eat lunch alone, but this 10-minute act fulfills a basic need and allows me to focus on the needs at the top of the pyramid—like creativity, friendship, and achievement.
Personally, making time for friendship and creativity are two acts that really feel like self-care to me, although I realize that every mother has different higher needs. Meeting a friend for coffee or an art exhibit fills my cup because they fulfill some of my highest needs.
I asked my friend Olivia Dreizen Howell if she had any thoughts on the matter, as she spends a lot of time encouraging others to value themselves. After a divorce and some major life changes a few years ago, Howell founded Fresh Start Registry with her sister, Jenny Dreizen. It is a resource for anyone going through major life changes, from divorce to major health issues and career changes. Often, in the chaos of a big move, mothers really lose touch with their basic needs, let alone their higher needs. Honestly, being a mom during the pandemic has had the same effect on me personally. Homeschooling four kids while trying to work full time, enduring a week-long hospitalization with COVID, and dealing with the ongoing health issues since then have left my tank empty.
Howell told me to start small, only setting the intention to take care of myself in whatever way feels manageable. “Some of the little daily ways I reinforce to myself that I am worthy of self-care are eating a little piece of chocolate every day, establishing a daily ritual that includes moving my body and stretching at night, writing in my journal, and even something as simple as making my bed in the morning,” she shares. Reminding herself that she is a woman worthy of a freshly made bed and the rest that occurs in that bed allows her to feel loved and cared for.
As for the more tangible things like bath and beauty items? They have a purpose. “I think we forget that a lot of self-care as a parent is taking care of ourselves,” notes Howell. “How can we mother in small ways during the day? Wearing soft, comfortable clothes, listening to music I love, grabbing that latte — all these daily tasks I do remind me that I love myself. My inner child is both being loved and worthy of being loved.”
“Loving me” really got to me. I have a son who struggles with self-esteem and another who is often anxious. I realized that wearing my burnout as a badge of honor was teaching my kids a terrible lesson. I was nurturing the culture of hustle, teaching them to devalue themselves and giving them a mother who is a shell of the person she was before children.
What does true self-care teach our children?
I recently took my two daughters in for a manicure and pedicure. They had been begging for months and I decided the splurge was worth it, even if they paid for it in a prank day at the playground. We had fun. We pick the same color, have fancy coffee afterwards, and play a song his brothers don’t like. The day had all the self-care trappings of glossy magazines: nail polish, $7 drinks, and a good playlist. When I spoke to Casares about this, she noted that what my girls gleaned from that day probably runs deeper.
“Sometimes modeling self-care for our kids can feel like they’re watching you do something you love,” she says. “Sometimes it can feel like they are watching us take a break.” My girls saw both of those things that day as I modeled (and got them) some of my self-care.
Sometimes, Casares told me, modeling self-care for my kids also involves setting a firm boundary around my needs. During the recent school holidays, she planned to spend the entire day with her daughter – after a brief phone call with a colleague. “I had this 30 minutes carved out really for me and for something that mattered to me. And so self-care at that point effectively felt like me saying to my son, ‘You need to find another way to distract yourself or play with your toys, or do something around the house while I do this.’”
His daughter struggled during the call when she had a tech mishap. Casares looked her in the eye and said, “You’ll need to work things out on your own.” Even this small act can seem radical in a society where mothers are never encouraged to put themselves first. The call, centered around a creative endeavor she is working on, was instrumental in her well-being and needs. self-care felt like it to me that day,” she told me.
Howell says she feels extra pressure as a mother of two boys. “It is very important for mothers to model self-care for their children, especially since we live in a patriarchal society and I want my children to see that I am worthy of self-care and that I am a human being who deserves to rest, relax and do things that bring me joy. joy”, she says. I also have two children and I always think about the types of parents and partners they will be if they choose this path. .
Howell notes that it’s important for boys to learn on their own as well. Men are not immune to burnout and self-neglect. “I also want to model self-care for them, so they know that they should be encouraged to have a life full of little joys — and big joys — and that we don’t have to rush all the time.” She cites the example of going to the doctor or dentist, which we see as necessary and we try to prioritize. It’s no different, she says. “Self-care is the foundation of everything and we need to invest time, and sometimes money, in our own joy.”
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