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Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

By Jeni Howe

Being kind to yourself is the key to being your best for the people who depend on you.

In writing about self-care, I have one immediate hurdle to overcome: I loathe the term “self-care.” And, in fact, I am not so great at the actual task. Like, right there: Most people would not call self-care a task. But that’s what it has always felt like to me—a task I have to commit to in order to feel adultier and more sophisticated, when what I really want to be doing is reorganizing my spice shelf or raking the leaves of the trails behind my house. My “self” feels better and more replenished when I have achieved something, and even better, achieved it well…nay, BEST. (Yes, if you’re first meeting me, I am what they call Type A.)

The more philosophical aversion to the term is frankly how privileged it often seems. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that many of us studied in Sociology 101, where does self-care fall? The primary human need is physical (air, water, food, rest, health), then security (safety, shelter), then social (love and belonging), on to the pesky ego (self-esteem, power, recognition, prestige), and finally self-actualization. From a global perspective, what a place of luxury to have so many of my needs met that now I can concern myself with taking extra care of myself!

BUT. But but but but but. People like me are among those most in need of a pause, a reset, a commitment to the care of ourselves. If we think of self-care as a spa treatment, perhaps a long-awaited date night, buying cashmere socks, maybe a special smoothie, a nice long bath, or (and this was actually an example of self-care I found on a therapy website) dressing your pet in a silly costume…well, then, we are talking about luxuries, even if they may be well deserved and valid desires. And most of us struggle to fit those luxuries in, or justify them as new or seasoned parents with jobs, children, extended family, etc.

But what if self-care is actually what we indeed need— not just to feel better, but to survive and thrive?

The first human need is physical well-being. When my second child was 2 weeks old, I, in a state of complete exhausted delirium, ran a stop sign with my newborn and tot in the car. I just missed being hit by a car going 60 miles per hour through the intersection. I pulled over and called my husband, weeping and apologizing for almost hurting our children. But in hindsight, I recognize that this was not actually a huge parenting flaw or negligence. My 2-year-old daughter went to a morning program twice a week. I used that time to sleep a bit with my new baby boy, so I really wanted her to attend the program. But I had to then pick her up several hours later, on time, with a snack. This required getting out of the car with the newborn, saying hi to all the other parents, and looking like I had my act together while toting my tiny baby in a 40-pound car seat, functioning on four hours of sleep. Right….I call this one “Why the hell wasn’t I sleeping too??”

So, a lot of this is on me. I could have asked for help. People loved me. But I thought being a good mom meant being a perfect mom who could do it all, and do it all well-dressed, non-leaky, and with a sunny disposition. In short, I was the complete postpartum nightmare. I would never let one of my doula clients put this absurd pressure on herself to go it alone and not ask for—not demand—help. But referring back to Maslow, I thought sleep and health were luxuries, and that belonging and love depended on my being some bizarre, superheroine version of a mother I had created in my imagination (with some help from lousy social media and show-off moms who have six-pack abs two months after birthing people). My ego and sense of self were based on unicorns—images of new moms that didn’t tell the whole truth.

So I am here to tell you, self-care has a real PR problem. As it is currently used, it’s fluffy and nice, and sort of optional. But, according to Oxford English Dictionary, self-care simply means “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health.” In other words, it’s not optional. It’s literally the first human need. The second definition is “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” Well-being and happiness are subjective, and I don’t think they’re “needs,” per se, but they are fairly reasonable goals for all of us people trying to live good lives. Or at the very least, mayhap we can all agree to aim to be fulfilled and at peace. Happy is simply not in everyone’s constitution, after all.

I recently opened a wellness center for growing families in Brewster, New York, called Baby Botanica. There, we define self-care as the need for health, not a luxury or a self-entitled demand for “better.” Whether that means a chiropractic adjustment at 39 weeks pregnant, pelvic floor physical therapy at six months postpartum, a community jog with a 1-year-old, massage for a newborn and new parent, lactation support to help a dyad breastfeed, homeopathic consults, or prenatal dance or yoga, we help parents regain or retain their health in a loving, gentle way. We are a warm, safe shelter for families where we’ll even hold a newborn while a parent takes a nap in a quiet room so they can get home safely.

If a space like this doesn’t exist near you, go out and create it—even if it winds up being several different spaces. Find a free meetup, seek out other parents, and locate affordable professionals who can help create a sense of belonging so you can experience the loving community we all crave, once we have the bigger needs of health and safety met. As for your ego and self-esteem, consider that loving your little people is nearly impossible without loving yourself. Seek therapists, positive parenting groups, mindfulness workshops, and even simple meditation to facilitate being in touch with and believing in your truest self. Once these needs are met, then we can be creative and develop skills that extend beyond what we need, and fulfill what we hope for!

I learned the hard way the importance of practicing selfcare. And I had to fall apart a bit to redefine self-care as a need and not a luxury. I don’t even call it self-care, because that doesn’t do justice to the acts that essentially allow me to function: a cat nap before getting in the car, taking a hike in the woods with my dogs to deal with plantar fasciitis and scoliosis, and, yes, surrounding myself with people who will lovingly be my oxygen mask when I can’t quite find air. I invite you to find your oxygen, your shelter, your safety net, and loving hands. Trust me: It’s not a privilege. It’s your human right.