New data comes out, almost daily, supporting the need for parents and caregivers to invest in self-care. My social media feeds are saturated with images of healthy eating, athletic triumphs, and weekend retreats to recharge. While opportunities to invest in myself abound, my daily struggle is still one that precludes me from participating in activities that help me achieve this level of care.
I struggle to put my finger on why. Why, with the blessings of small pockets of time and resources to support my own care, do I still hesitate to do it? Do I think my family will suffer if I leave them to their own devices for a few hours? Or do I pride myself (perhaps too much) on my ability to handle our lives better than anyone else could attempt in my place? In all honesty, what am I trying to prove, and to whom?
Along the continuum between martyrdom and self-indulgence, I always tend toward the end that makes me appear like the queen of selflessness. My husband jokes that I want my gravestone to read “The Mother Who Was Always There”, and he isn’t too far off. It was only after my fourth child started to separate from my constant watchful eye, and I turned my gaze inward, that I realized why caring for myself was such a challenge.
Self-care, particularly for parents who are also caregivers as a profession, seems to be an uphill battle. With the nursing students I teach, we regularly review how to shoulder the responsibility of providing care to other people, and work to identify our own personal barriers to ensure that we extend the same grace to ourselves. For me, it was the trifecta of anxiety, guilt, and comparison that caught me in a trap where I refused to acknowledge the need to care for myself.
Anxiety was ever present, simply because self-care could be one more goal that I struggled to meet. Guilt, my constant companion, was a double edged sword; on one hand, I worried that I wasn’t spending enough time with my children, while simultaneously feeling guilt that I was a terrible role model for teaching them how to care for themselves. And comparison was always there to steal joy and any resemblance of victory, as my social feeds showed other mothers proclaiming their weight loss accomplishments and launching their own non-profits.
As a nurse, I think it’s especially difficult to divert my attention from caring for everyone else, and instead, focus on caring for myself. It has been ingrained in me since I began my health care career to function as a compassionate caregiver to any one and everyone who crosses my path, without bias or reservation. And having cared for the sickest of the sick patients, my perspective is altered towards recognizing my own abundance instead of my needs.
It wasn’t until my primary focus turned away from my patients and toward my children that I realized that this was a true deficit in my daily routine. But what should I do about it?
The most critical lesson I have learned from my decade as a parent, and my two decades as a health care provider, is this: No one else can define self care for you. What works for your best friend or colleague may or may not refuel your spirit. Your timeline may or may not correspond with your sister across the country or your neighbor who seems to always have it all together. The simple act of caring for yourself implies nothing more than that individualized, personal plan that works for you and your life circumstance at this particular moment in time.
I am still a work in progress. I recognize the need for self-care, but also have my eyes open to realize that sometimes, our greater family needs will come first. My family is my biggest blessing, and as a role model for my four daughters, I know I need to work away from my trifecta of anxiety, guilt, and comparison, and towards a woman whose behavior I would want my daughters to emulate.
At the end of the day, our happiness lies at the intersection of my joy and theirs. As a good steward of the time I have been given with my family, I know it is critical not only to meet all of their needs, but also my own. When it comes down to it, I’d much rather that my children remember my peace and joy than to have my sole virtue be that I did it all.