I read once that gel manicures might be the closest thing to aesthetic perfection out there, and if you’ve had a good one, you might just agree. At the time it made me wonder if that was part of why I loved my monthly appointments. Life could be raining a complete shit storm down, but at least there was not a speck of nail polish out of place.
I also savored these appointments for the sense of self-care that they provided. “I’m going to get my nails done!” I’d call out to my husband as he finished up the breakfast dishes and kids sprawled out in front of Peppa Pig. Or I’d stop at the nail salon on my way home from work, smug at the proactive crockpot meal I’d prepared that morning.
At the salon, I’d usually pop in my headphones and resume the audiobook I’d spent the last three months trying to get through. Maybe a little small talk with the manicurist, but I’d be ultra-conscious not to let the conversation get too deep. I didn’t think I could take any talking that required more than the most basic of social skills.
I’d walk to the train or my car with my hands splayed out in front of me to admire the freshness, the shininess. For a moment I’d feel put back together, as if these little pops of color at the end of my fingers meant things were a little more in control. And then I’d walk back in my house, the kids still sprawled in front of the TV, the dishes drying but not yet put away. And the familiar feeling would set back in, the one I knew I’d been running from – the aching loneliness.
Much has been written about the inadequacies of the self-care movement, particularly when it’s commercialized (Pooja Lakshmin’s Real Self-Care is a great primer). We’re all too familiar with the way major corporations have co-opted the concept of self-care as a marketing strategy.
It’s a brilliant one, really, particularly when your target market is women and even more particularly when it’s millennial and Gen X women in the throes of parenting stress, housing crises, climate anxiety, and record rates of depression. Urging women to find those little slices of “me time” in a world that’s constantly demanding more and faster and better is a solid approach if you want to sell face masks or herbal “chill pills.”
But what I’ve been thinking about recently is a specific aspect of the way that our current concept of self-care is constructed. After more than a decade of trying to figure out what self-care as a caregiver looks and feels like, I’m realizing that we’ve been set up for failure.
The street I lived on for most of my childhood jutted off a main road, one where a hospital would eventually be built. If you continued down the road past our small ranch-style house with the sloping front yard and the swampy backyard, you’d reach a big horse farm. My neighbors on each side were older adults, their grown children coming to check in on them periodically. There may have been other kids who lived on my street, but if there were I didn’t know them. It was far too busy of a road to explore, so I was confined to the patch of blacktop in the back where I’d ride my bike in small circles, and a small swath of trees where I’d pretend to be a Boxcar kid.
Most days after my mom picked me up from latch-key, I’d sneak down into the basement while she paid bills or made dinner. There sat the wooden-paneled TV and I’d sit cross-legged on the carpet in front of it with a box of Entenmann’s donuts.
If anyone noticed that we would go through so many boxes of donuts in a week, they never said anything to me. By the time my mom eventually called me up for dinner, my belly’s aching drowned out the anxiety I felt about being caught.
I think it was after a trip to Target that I really started to notice just how lonely “self-care” seemed to make me. I remember sitting in my car, preparing to drive home with a bunch of stuff I only vaguely needed, and being hit with the recognition of how tired I was of trying to run away from my life and calling it recreation.
I also recognized that it seemed like an impossible paradox. Getting a manicure or locking myself in my bathroom with a book or even going on a walk could all feel nice for a few minutes, but they also left me feeling even more alone than I already did in the day to day tasks of motherhood. Meanwhile, the perhaps obvious alternative of calling someone to catch up or going out for dinner with a girlfriend felt like they took a type of energy that I just didn’t have.
I wondered at the time if I was broken. The world was suggesting that these moments for “me” should be restoring my sense of self, bolstering my energy to take on the next set of responsibilities, but they weren’t.
Instead, I was internalizing the idea that the only time I can attend to my own needs is by locking myself away, getting away from the people in my house and in my life. Self-care was supposed to feel good, but I was honestly so tired of being by myself.
One of the major failures of self-care is that it is often framed as something we do alone, once we can get space and distance from others, especially those we feel we need to care for. But the ultimate goal is to be able to have a self while also being in relationship with others.
As women – as humans – we are wired to be in connection with other people. We literally get sick, emotionally and physically, when we lack those communal moments and social bonds. So of course a concept of self-care that always keeps us in isolation is not sustainable. It’s actually antithetical to what we need as people to thrive.
What would it mean, I wonder, if self-care wasn’t built on the concept of “self” as solitary? What if we did away with the term altogether? Some wonderful thinkers have suggested alternative concepts like community care, a term from Nakita Valerio, or self-tending, a term from my friend Mara Glatzel.
I personally haven’t landed on a particular term, but I have thought about my hopes for self-care, particularly for those engaged in the hard work of caregiving.
I want us to be able to tend to ourselves as whole human beings even while staying in connection to those we love. I want a system where we aren’t forced to choose between serving the needs of others and the needs of ourselves. I want us to recognize that as families we have to tend to the needs of the whole, not just the needs of certain individuals.
Maybe you agree this sounds nice, but it’s hard to see how this translates when rubber meets the road.
It might look like, for example, deciding to opt out of a kid’s soccer team that practices three nights per week and instead go with the one that practices one so that you can have more family dinners.
It might look like going ahead and having that weekly date night with your partner despite the guilt that’s nagging at you.
It might look like saying no, I don’t really want to play with your dollhouse right now because I’m at a really good juicy part in my book and you’re welcome to cuddle with me on the couch while I finish it instead.
It might look like setting the boundary that you’re leaving work at 4:00 from now on not for daycare pick-up, but so that you can take a walk with a friend or grab a drink or take a class in something that interests you.
Self-care is harder work than most of us realize, and it’s not just because we struggle to find the time. It’s hard because many of us are not used to tending to our needs in the presence of others.
Engaging in self-care is not a series of practices or treats we give ourselves, but rather a framework for remembering that we have a self, one that deserves care and attention while in connection with others.