Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Necessity of Self Care

I have been reflecting on a blog post that I recently read in the context of the Buddhist philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh writes that:

So in taking care of yourself, you take good care of your beloved one. Self-love is the foundation for your capacity to love the other person. If you don't take good care of yourself, if you are not happy, if you are not peaceful, you cannot make the other person happy. You cannot help the other person; you cannot love. Your capacity for loving another person depends entirely on your capacity for loving yourself, for taking care of yourself”

This applies so deeply to motherhood where the insistence upon martyrdom is still strong. I was recently reading a blog post by a mother who was reflecting upon the challenges of parenting and attempting to cast the struggle as a duty and, ultimately, a blessing. The writer suggests that being a mother is the greatest and most wonderful thing, and that nothing in her life will ever be better than being constantly needed. She suggests that when her children leave her life will be empty and meaningless. You can find the entire article HERE.

One of the statements in the article that disturbed me greatly reads as follows:

“The sooner I can accept that being Mommy means that I never go off the clock, the sooner I can find peace in this crazy stage of life.   That ‘Mommy’ is my duty, privilege and honor. I am ready to be there when somebody needs me, all day and all night.  Mommy means I just put the baby back down after her 4am feeding when a 3-year-old has a nightmare.  Mommy means I am surviving on coffee and toddler leftovers.  Mommy means my husband and I haven’t had a real conversation in weeks.  Mommy means I put others’ needs before my own, without a thought.  Mommy means that my body is full of aches and my heart is full of love.”

In the context of Thich Nhat Hanh's theory of the essential practice of self-love, the above paragraph hints at nothing less than self-abuse. No one should be living a life where they “never go off the clock.” Even mothers should be able to carve out time alone when someone else is caring for their children and they are pursuing their own interests. If you are “surviving on coffee and toddler leftovers” then you are not nourishing your own body with healthy food, and that can only mean depletion and sickness down the road. If you are not talking to your husband then your relationship will suffer greatly. As co-parents it is essential that you maintain your relationship, even in the chaos of a house full of children. Your marriage is the foundation upon which your family rests and if your marriage suffers so will your children. Especially terrifying is the author's contention that “Mommy means I put others' needs before my own, without a thought.” This is the most damaging and persistent myth out there about parenthood and motherhood in particular. If, as a mother, you never put your own needs first, if you neglect your own health and well-being in favour of the health and well-being of those around you, eventually everyone will suffer. Thich Nhat Hanh so wisely says that you must take care of yourself in order to have the capacity to care for others. Love comes from a place of wellness, not a place of depletion. If you are exhausted, if you are ignoring the desperate plea of your own mind and body for nourishment and healing, then you will grind yourself down to a tiny nub and you will have nothing left to give of yourself.

The author of the blog post also talks about motherhood as being the sole purpose of her life. She states that being needed is what gives her value as a human being:

“I am sure there will come a day when no one needs me.  My babies will all be long gone and consumed with their own lives.  I may sit alone in some assisted living facility watching my body fade away.  No one will need me then.  I may even be a burden.  Sure, they will come visit, but my arms will no longer be their home.  My kisses no longer their cure.  There will be no more tiny boots to wipe the slush from or seat belts to be buckled.  I will have read my last bedtime story, 7 times in a row.  I will no longer enforce time outs.  There will be no more bags to pack and unpack or snack cups to fill.  I am sure my heart will yearn to hear those tiny voices calling out to me, “Mommy, somebody needs you!”

I would like to challenge this vision of the useless old person in a care home. While I will be the first to admit that parenthood is a deeply important job, and while I will agree with the sentiment that there is worth in being a caregiver for small children, I must emphatically disagree with the notion that a woman has no other source of worth. Yes, children will grow up and your role in their lives will change. And while you may not have the power to heal them like you once did I like to hope that your influence will still be valued even as an old woman. I hope my son and I will maintain a relationship that comes to be more and more one of equals. We will, one day, sit together as two adults who might help each other see the world in new ways. As he gains independence it will be important for him to need me less in some ways, but I hope that he will choose to love me still, even when he is long past the point of needing me to bandage his knees and sing him to sleep. I also hope that I will find other ways to express my worth and value to society. There are so many other places that a woman can engage with the world in powerful and meaningful ways. If your children don't need you in the intensive way they did when they were small then certainly someone else in the world does. We have so many opportunities to fight for social justice, to be a voice for the voiceless, to get involved in our families and communities and the structures of our globalized world and help those who are less fortunate. I hope that sitting in your wheelchair at the end of your life thinking that your value ended when your children moved out is not an inevitability. And to assume that no one will “need you” in your advanced age is narrow-minded and ageist. We need our elders. We need their wisdom and the accrued knowledge of their advanced years. We need them to continue to tell their stories to the younger generations so we can all have a sense of our heritage and history.

I can see what this author was trying to achieve. She wants to show the reader the beauty in motherhood. She also wants to vindicate her exhaustion by situating herself as a martyr. But I must argue that this position is damaging. If we encourage women to lose themselves to motherhood, if we keep insisting that martyrdom to our children is the ideal, and the highest work that we can do, then we will continue to condemn mothers and parents in general to a place of insecurity, depletion, and depression. It's important to find joy in the process of motherhood and I appreciate that this author was attempting to do just that. She wants to see beauty in the night-time feedings and the muddy boots. That's a wonderful exercise in mindfulness. But at the same time it is dangerous to live through your children and find worth only by subsuming yourself into their needs. As parents we must live for ourselves as well, feed ourselves, feed our souls and find modes of expression outside of parenthood so that we can model self-care for our children. This is the greatest gift we can give them, and it can only be achieved by sometimes putting ourselves first.