A few weeks ago, a writer friend posted on Facebook that she was exhausted, depleted, overrun with deadlines and child care obligations and also some debt, and she quietly put out a plea for “self-care” strategies that take “10 minutes or less to accomplish because I seriously do not have more than 10 minutes to give to anything extraneous at this moment.”
The responses were, of course, gorgeous, ranging from lavender oils to yoga poses to websites and guided meditation and wine, each of which seemed—as I read them at the airport in Lubbock, Texas, en route to a speech—worth more than the one posted moments before. I couldn’t decide whether I was more inspired or depressed by the fact that so many of the heroic feminist women I know on Facebook confessed in a single thread that they were forced to take care of themselves in 10-minute bursts, or three sustained yoga poses, or by way of a spritz of calming spray. It was a relief to feel that conversations about how to calm down for a second are not hopelessly self-indulgent and trivial. I think if I had asked any of my great-grandmothers what they did for their own episodes of regular self-care, they would likely have replied, “Um, not starving today.”
Still, the whole notion of “self-care” was suddenly in the ether. A week later, when I taped a podcast with another feminist activist, Katie Klabusich, the thing somehow didn’t record, so we had to retape the whole 30-minute interview later the same day. We were both stressed, and after the second recording Katie signed off with the charming directive that I practice a bit of self-care that day. Which was so easy and yet so unheard of in my universe, which revolves around chugging on toward whatever obligation is 20 seconds ahead of me, that I almost couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. Self-care? Again? Does Origins make that in a purse-sized spray?
I know it’s bad form to complain about being busy because #firstworldproblems, but in the past three weeks I have noticed a significant uptick in the frequency with which my sons ask questions like “Are you OK?” and “Why does your face look like that?”
Which suggests that the issue here transcends “self-care” and drapes itself softly across “personal neglect.” Last week I took a picture of a plate of baked ziti at O’Hare Airport and posted it to Facebook with “self care” in the caption. (The quantity of pasta on the plate would have staved off starvation for all four of my great-grandmothers for at least a week.) I got many, many likes. Clearly, it’s easier to joke about the need to stop and rest than it is to actually stop and rest or to talk about it honestly.
I mostly live my professional life by two aphorisms. One is that you have to work incredibly hard—especially as a woman—because everyone secretly suspects that you are taking a lot of unauthorized “me” time to rationalize fractions with your fifth-grader. The other is that you should generally try to not die from exhaustion. I hate that self-care is a punch line on a Facebook post because it’s worthy of a lot more substantial thought. I also worry that if I ever really did ask any of my four great-grandmothers what it is they did for self-care, even they would tilt their heads sideways and say, sadly, “Why does your face look like that?”