Listen, I don't know why we keep needing to re-learn that we need to care for ourselves better, or why each instance of self-care victory seems revelatory when we write about it so often. I'd be embarrassed at how often our writing turns to self-care - prioritizing it, taking time for it, suffering from lack of it - except that it never stops being relevant in the lives of parents and other caregivers.
This isn't a dead horse we're beating, this recurring subject of self-care. Oh, no. The horse is very much alive and running away from us as quickly as it can while we shuffle at a toddler's pace, both hands sticky with handed-off fruit-leather wrappers and full of the doughy paws of our children. And, even if we were to catch the horse, the last thing we'd want to do is beat it. We just want to sit on it for a minute and rest our tired feet, and maybe take a nap while the horse navigates for the next couple of miles.
It's just true that we forget to take care of ourselves in the heat of parenting and adulting and living. And it's just true that when we finally remember (or re-remember, or re-re-remember) that our own well-being is as important as that of those around us, we're surprised at how much better things get.
Which is how, in the realization of a suburban housewife nightmare, I found truth in the gospel of O, The Oprah Magazine.
I didn't want it to come to this. I mean, it's bad enough that I've grown increasingly interested in discussing the price of organic, low-fat milk at the local grocery store and that I now buy the bulk of my "cute" shoes at The Walking Company. But O, The Oprah Magazine (whose lengthy title I find hilarious and will herein overuse)? The one we only have a subscription to because it was free with the redemption of our quickly expiring air miles? Aren't I too young, hip, and phresh (are we still saying phresh?) for that?
No, readers. No, I am not.
I was wallowing in the tub Tuesday night when I read Martha Beck's essay "What an Overweight Former Model Can Teach Us About Breaking Free of Bad Habits" in a dusty back-issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. In it Beck posits that bad habits serve the purpose of rewarding their practitioners with "secondary gains," essentially a good feeling that accompanies the bad feeling of engaging in the bad habit. She suggests that seeking behaviors that prioritize freedom, rest, and kindness toward oneself (herein abbreviated FKR because, well, I'm an idiot) - actions that truly meet the needs sought erroneously through bad habits and their secondary gains - could cure one of one's bad habits.
It was fantastic. We just hung out, transitioned slowly, and had silly fun all over the neighborhood. I was relaxed and pleasantly tired out by the long day we'd shared, and the girls had had their healthy fill of attention and treats from a happy, relaxed parent. As we sat down to eat our indulgent dinner, we did so in the glow of a day well-spent in loving self-care.
Which is why, after a full day of freedom and kindness to ourselves (both of which proved psychologically restful), we were able to weather an actual challenge well.
During dinner I reached for my phone to snap a pic of the Smartlings at the end of our rosy day and discovered that my phone wasn't in my purse. With controlled, but not concealed, tension, I logged on to the "Find my iPhone" app and saw that it was in the neighborhood, but that it was moving slowly away from me on the map. "Shit! Shitshitfuckshitballsshit!," I thought and didn't say as I hurriedly called my Smartner at work to apprise him of the situation and discuss the viability of my turning vigilante to retrieve my phone with the girls strapped safely into the backseat of the family car. Then, as we both, tense, watched the blipping dot of the phone on our distant computer screens' maps stop, and the map zoom in to show the location of the thrift store. Dropping the Smartner's call to place one to the thrift store, I discovered that my lost phone was found! And safe! And was moving about the store as a manager put it in a safe, found! But I had to get it soon before closing time!
"Shit! Shitshitfuckshitballshit!," I thought and didn't say when I noticed how closely and nervously the Smartlings had been following the whole drama of losing then finding the phone, and how they'd stopped eating to anxiously monitor the situation. At the end of any normal day, filled with deadlines and obligations and to-do-items crossed off, I'd certainly have yelled to finish what they were going to finish in the next 2 minutes while I shoved shoes on their protesting feet under the table. But on that day - that magical Wednesday - we were all in tune with one another, all well cared for, and all relaxed enough together, that I was able to calmly tell the girls our exciting plan for the further adventure of retrieving the phone and bringing its finder a small reward. And the girls were able to cram their final bites, pack up their shakes, and follow my lead without question or delay.
We were a team facing a challenge together, and the kind, restful freedom we'd all enjoyed that day made the momentary chaos of that evening tolerable, surmountable, and even a little exciting. At bedtime, when I asked my elder Smartling what her favorite part of the day was, she lit up and said "Getting your phone back!" What a tense Christina would have turned into a dark and stormy catastrophe, a relaxed and connected Christina was able to turn into a joyful adventure. A day of FKR led to an evening of loving family cohesion.
It's easy to think of self-care as an act that we take to return to zero - to spackle in the gouges left by the emotional and physical assaults of parenting. But it's so much more than that. Self-care can help us recover, of course, and it can also help us build upon our own abilities, our own well-being, and our own happiness. Because I had gotten back to zero, I was able to build good will in my family that helped us thrive in a difficult moment. Because I had reinforced my cracked and weakened parts, we were able to take what would have otherwise been part of a wounding onslaught and turn it into an opportunity to build. Self-care does that. It compounds and grows, making us stronger and more resilient overall.
And that's the thing I learned from O, The Oprah Magazine. And that's the thing I struggle to keep learning, that we all who spend our days necessarily prioritizing the needs of our little ones must keep remembering and re-remembering and re-re-remembering. Granting ourselves healing freedom, kindness, and rest is not an emergency, single-use experience. It isn't triage. It is a practice that we must continually engage in if we are to get past zero and grow for - and with - our children.