The Myth of Self-Care

I often hear new parents, especially new mothers, talk about the importance of self-care. Birth professionals also drive home the need for new mothers to take care of themselves. And while I agree it is important to take care of oneself even while caring for a child, we can also use it against ourselves as one more way we aren’t measuring up.

When our first child was born, my husband and I lived in a studio guest house. We cooked, ate, slept, worked and socialized all in the same one room. For the first several days after Kaden was born even my mom shared that living space with us. Privacy wasn’t just a privilege; it was an unattainable illusion! Even though that baby is now driving, I remember those early days well. Each day was a process of going from diaper change to feeding and back again. In some ways, that one room made things simpler if not easier. The world my little family and I created was contained within one set of walls. The act of going from bed to kitchen involved not much more than a roll out of bed followed by a few steps or stumbles.

Not long after Kaden was born, we moved into our home. Suddenly, we had closing doors, the possibility of privacy, our baby had a room of his own, and we finally had a closet! And while the space brought breathing room for all of us, it also added to my list of things to “get done.” When wrapped in the womb of that small one room studio, we stumbled around those precious and difficult postpartum days. Nothing beyond caring for our new amazing family member held much importance. The rub really started after we moved, after our baby was less freshly born, and after I had a sense that I “got this.”

It was at that point where I began believing I could get shit done—dishes, the laundry, the toilets, the yard, the garbage, the in-laws, and my work. The to-do list grew along with my competence, keeping relaxation forever slightly out of reach. Around this time, I began hearing the mantra of self-care. Now, in addition to everything else on my to-do list, I also had to make sure I “took care of myself.”

A new mother is often already giving every ounce of her life force to care for her infant. New parenting alone takes a LOT out of us. Add to that the idea that a parent has to take a bath, or get to the gym, or “take some time for herself” and intensity only goes up. Instead of helping a mother actually tend to herself, the rally cry for self-care can make mothers weary, increasing the list of things they can’t seem to get done!

Many of us want to adopt new self-care practices and rituals–meditation, yoga, journaling–and when we don’t keep it going, or find that the job of parenting always seems to get in the way, we collapse upon our own best intentions. A teacher of mine once said to me, “We cannot force ourselves into a new spiritual or self-care practice. We must be called to it from joy rather than obligation.”

What calls to you from joy? What calls you to tend to it, not because you should, but because the whispering voice in your belly yearns to be heard? Follow that longing with small movements toward it. Move not as another thing to check off your to-do list, rather as a momentary gift to your soul. It may be as simple as a few present moments in the shower while you feel the warm water roll down your skin and the aroma of a favorite soap fills your senses.

Self-care can be made up of small moments rather than grand gestures. Think of self-care as a moment of remembering to be in your own body. Notice what you are feeling, breathe a deeper breath, and inhale a smell you enjoy–one that reminds you that being human isn’t all about baby poop and spit-up.

Self-care doesn’t necessarily require a babysitter or even time alone. It can simply be opening yourself to your own bodily experience and turning toward a moment of enjoyment.

Self-care as a practice, is the act of remembering to turn toward yourself in any moment. Post-it notes are a favorite tool in this regard. What one word will help you remember to practice self-care? I put my Post-it notes on my bathroom mirror, refrigerator, above my desk, and on the dashboard of my car.

I invite you to make a ritual of turning toward yourself as a regular practice beyond the to-do list activities of self-care adorning social media. This form of self-care can even be practiced while living in a single room studio with your newborn, husband, and mother.

Candles are not required.

About Dr. Britta Bushnell

is a writer, teacher, storyteller, and mentor who blends her eclectic training, years of experience, and areas of study into a unique offering for individuals, couples, professionals, and groups. Britta is currently deep at work writing her forthcoming book, Transformed by Birth: Illuminating cultural ideals to enhance the experience of childbirth.