I’ve been planning my self-care staycation for months.
After celebrating Christmas with my husband, 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, I’ll spend two to three days doing things for, and by, myself. I’ve told myself that on these days, I’ll drop the kids off at daycare and then indulge in the activities that I never have time for as a working mom.
I’ll get a massage — the full-body, one-hour kind. I’ll get a manicure and pedicure and then go to a yoga class. I’ll bake sugar cookies and chocolate chip muffins for my kiddos. I’ll read my way through the aspirational tower of books on my nightstand. I’ll write, because uninterrupted time to put pen to paper is rare these days.
As I think about the possibilities, guilt shows up like it usually does, totally uninvited.
You don’t have time for all this stuff. It’ll be expensive and self-indulgent. Besides, you don’t get to see the kids much during the week, so you should savor every minute with them and keep them home every single day of your vacation. If you don’t, you’ll regret it when you go back to work.
And then the inevitable mental load comes knocking.
You start to think about the fact that your kids’ bathtub needs to be scrubbed, and your daughter is about to outgrow all her shoes, and your son could really use a haircut, and the playroom has been in disarray for weeks so you should probably organize it as soon as humanly possible.
And you’ll tell yourself: When I have time off, I’ll do all these things. And then, if I have time, I’ll squeeze in some self-care.
The pursuit of wellness becomes one more task on an ever-growing list. These tasks start to fill crevices of time, and the crevices become caverns. The night before you go back to work, you’re left with a neck cramp, a two-month-old pedicure, and an untouched baking pan, wondering where all that precious time off went. You justify it by telling yourself that selflessness is better than self-care because, let’s face it, who has time to care for themselves?
The $4.2 trillion wellness industry is so prevalent and pervasive that self-care has become something that one needs to aspire to, as if we can only care for ourselves by setting aside large chunks of time and spending lots of money.
Sometimes we pursue the idea of self-care with so much vigor that it becomes exhausting just thinking about it. For moms, the accompanying guilt and mental load add to the fatigue.
We give of ourselves so much that we can lose ourselves along the way.
We mother our children so hard that we forget to mother ourselves. We become deafened by the din of the mental load that we stop listening to our bodies. It becomes harder to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full, to rest when we’re tired, to take our time.
That expression — take your time — has become increasingly calming to me as a working mom. It’s permission to slow down, to seek a respite from rushed daycare drop-offs and looming work deadlines. It’s a more manageable way of looking at self-care.
Self-care doesn’t have to be complicated.
It can be as simple as taking your time, or taking your time off, or taking back your time. However you phrase it, self-care is ultimately about how you choose to spend your time.
Self-care can mean an hour-long massage, but it can also mean doing some shoulder shrugs to loosen up after a long work day. It can mean hiring a housecleaner, if you have the means to do so, instead of doing it all yourself. It can mean taking a nap on one of your rare vacation days, or better yet, getting seven hours of sleep a night. (Just the thought of getting more than six hours of sleep a night makes me giddy.)
Behavioral scientist Ashley Whillans encourages people to “seek small shifts around the margins.” Her research has found that people don’t engage in enough self-care because they feel guilty doing so. They think their own self-care places a burden on others, so instead of sharing their workload with others, they take on all the responsibility themselves.
“We have been so ingrained that we need to be the perfect parent, the perfect spouse, the perfect employee, that even though we’re going to the market economy with our hard-earned money and having solutions to some of these daily hassles, we don’t actually follow through,” Whillans said on a recent Women at Work podcast. “We’re always constantly monitoring and thinking about … the extent to which we’re burdening other people.”
Delegation, she says, is a critical component of self-care. The more we can delegate tasks at home and work, the more we can take the burden off ourselves and empower other people to help.
It seems the greatest gift that we can give ourselves as moms this holiday season is something more than a manicure and a massage; it’s the act of giving ourselves ongoing permission to engage in self-care, to ask for help and lessen our load.
The load for moms will never be light, but it doesn’t have to be quite so heavy.