A few years ago I took a parenting class for people with children under five, led by Candyce Bollinger who is something of a guru in my community. Each week about twenty of us sat in a circle on the floor and went around with our most pressing questions while our children played in the next room. One week a mother was nearly in tears over her children’s constant rivalry. Candyce gave an answer about the importance of self-care and then she paused. “Let’s be clear,” she said, “when I talk about self-care I’m not telling you to take a long bath. I’m talking about hours of uninterrupted time. You should all, for instance, be spending entire weekends away from your children every once in a while.”
I looked around the room and noted that nearly every jaw had dropped. All of this time, we really had assumed that self-care really did mean a bath, or five minutes of deep breathing, or maybe if we were really greedy it could mean Sunday lunch with a friend. But entire weekends away from our children? How on earth would they survive?
Candyce noted our collective resistance and followed up. “I know our current culture doesn’t really encourage that,” she said. “But if you can find friends or relatives to watch your kids overnight once in a while, I promise you they’ll be fine.”
I was remembering this moment after reading Lauren Apfel’s essay in the Washington Post this week, Stay at home moms need annual leave, too, which points out the many benefits of extended time away from parental duties. It got me thinking also about the two nights I spent on Whidbey Island last month. One of the greatest benefits to me was that I planned the excursion months in advance, and this meant that I spent months looking forward to it.
These days, as we enter the terrible twos, as Stump wakes at five-thirty every morning, climbs on furniture, and throws everything from toy cars to fistfuls of granola, I am constantly dreaming of a future day when he has learned some social norms, when my life is a little quieter. In those months that I was planning my vacation, my reprieve was weeks away, not years away, and this was a boon to my peace of mind.
And I’ve already written about the texture of the quiet I experienced in those days, how it was richer, more nourishing than any silence I’d ever experienced before.
All of this has me thinking about self-care. In the best-case scenario, I might get a night or two away from my kids every few months, so what does that mean for me day-by-day and week-by-week? If it’s more than a bath, then what is it?
I think of treats purchased to cool moments of anxiety—the double espresso to get through a work day after a sleepless night, or the cupcake devoured in the late afternoon to jolt my senses. These might seem like small gifts to myself in the moment, but they are superficial, like Band-Aids, patches to cover deeper needs.
Deeper self-care means not using nap times for housework or grading, but for doing whatever quiet thing my heart wants to do. It means taking two full hours to write whenever I possibly can. It means putting Stump in front of the TV on a Saturday morning and sleeping for as long as he’ll let me. Deep self-care means that I’m willing to invest in myself, to pay for a seminar on writing or a weekend away with my sister the same way I pony up for my Smoke’s swimming lessons and trips to the zoo.
Deep self-care, more than anything, means that I actively seek windows of time to claim as my own.
But my deep self-care can be thwarted at any moment, like fifteen minutes ago, when I was halfway through writing this post, and Stump woke from his nap too early, and I had to comfort him back to sleep. Or like when I have the stomach flu and find that I’m cleaning out Smoke’s puke bowl in between my own trips to the bathroom.
And there are the weeks when it seems that all I can do is acknowledge the need for self-care, but I’m just nodding at it from a distance, looking at my calendar, thinking that maybe in ten days I can do something for myself. These are the weeks that I lean heavily on the patches—I drink coffee and eat cupcakes; I stay up too late so that I can write for twenty minutes; I take a motherfucking bath.