'Self-care' is constantly marketed to moms. Here's what we actually need.
Since I became a mom over a decade ago, I’ve always felt overwhelmed by how “self-care” is marketed to me. A new lip gloss, a face mask, a fluffy robe and slippers — these are all terrific items to own. I buy myself these things when I need them or want them, without much guilt. But these and even more luxe purchases like a massage or a spa day (two things I very much enjoy, actually) do not define self-care for me. Before I began writing about mental heath I obtained a degree in counseling. That education, and the carer experience that followed, gave me a broader view of what caring for myself as a person should look like. I always come back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You’ve seen it in a textbook somewhere: that pyramid that shows how our most basic needs like food, shelter and sleep must be met before any higher needs can even be addressed. As a middle-class woman who grew up in a middle-class family, those needs have been easily met my entire life — until I became a mom.
What do moms really need to take care of themselves?
Maslow, an American psychologist who did most of his work during the 1950s and '60s, was on to something. There’s a reason a new pair of slippers or fancy coffee doesn’t truly feel like caring for myself, though it does provide a monetary spark of joy. As mothers, our children chip away daily at the bottom layer of the pyramid. They interrupt our sleep, often for years on end. We forget to eat or forage the scraps of dino nuggets left on plastic divided plates once they go to bed. It’s not really possible to meet the highest needs on the pyramid — called self-actualization — when we can’t meet our basic needs. When I began to look inward through this lens I found I was able to pinpoint exactly how I needed to care for myself. I needed to start treating my basic needs as necessary rather than a luxury.
Dr. Whitney Casares, a pediatrician who founded Modern Mommy Doc to support working mothers, has big feelings about the mismarketing of “self-care,” too. I asked her about my misgivings about the term and how it never sat quite right with me. While some kids just won't sleep and some days will be rushed, she told me to start with setting some small boundaries in an effort to meet my basic needs first. “Make space for yourself. When you’re able to set boundaries for yourself, you’re able to say, ‘I need a glass of water,’ or, ‘I need a five-minute break,’” she says. “Take care of yourself in the moment when you’re having a hard time.” It might feel impossible to sit down and have an actual lunch by myself, but that 10-minute act meets a basic need and allows me to focus on those needs that are higher up the pyramid — like creativity, friendship and achievement.
Personally, carving out time for friendship and creativity are two acts that truly do feel like self-care to me, though I realize each mom has different higher needs. Meeting a friend for coffee or taking in an art show fill my cup because they meet some of my higher needs.
I asked my friend Olivia Dreizen Howell if she had any thoughts on the topic since she spends a lot of time encouraging others to value themselves. After a divorce and some major life shifts a few years ago, Howell founded Fresh Start Registry with her sister, Jenny Dreizen. It’s a resource for anyone navigating big changes in life, from divorce to major health issues to career shifts. Often in that chaos of a major change, moms really lose touch with their basic needs, let alone any higher needs. Honestly, mothering through the pandemic had the same effect on me personally. Homeschooling four kids while attempting to work full-time, enduring a week-long hospitalization with COVID and dealing with the ongoing health issues since have left my tank empty.
Howell told me to start small by just setting the intention to care for myself in whatever way feels manageable. “Some of the tiny ways daily that I reinforce to myself that I am worthy of self-care are having a little piece of chocolate every day, setting up a daily ritual which includes moving my body and stretching at night, writing in my journal and even something as simple as making my bed in the morning," she shares. Reminding herself that she is a woman worthy of a freshly made bed, and the rest that occurs within that bed, allows her to feel loved and taken care of.
As for the more tangible things like bath and beauty items? They do have a purpose. “I think we forget that so much of self-care as a mother is about mothering ourselves," Howell notes. "How can we mother ourselves in tiny ways during the day? Wearing soft, comfy clothes, listening to music I love, getting that mocha latte — all of these daily tasks that I do remind me that I love me. My inner child is being loved at the same time, and is worthy of being loved.”
“Loving me” really struck a chord. I have a kiddo that struggles with self-worth, and another that is often anxious. I realized that wearing my burnout like a badge of honor was teaching my kids a terrible lesson. I was feeding into hustle culture, teaching them to devalue themselves and giving them a mom who is a shell of the person she was pre-kids.
What does true self-care teach our kids?
I recently took my two daughters for a mani-pedi. They had been begging for months and I decided that this splurge was worth it, even if they chipped it off in a day of playground shenanigans. We had fun. We chose the same color, got a fancy coffee afterward and blared some music their brothers don’t like. The day had all the glossy magazine trappings of self-care: nail polish, $7 drinks and a good playlist. When I talked to Casares about it, she observed that what my girls hopefully gleaned from that day likely runs deeper.
“Sometimes modeling self-care for our kids can look like them watching you do something that you love," she says. "Sometimes it can look like them watching us take a break.” My girls saw both of those things that day as I modeled (and welcomed them into) a bit of my self-care.
Sometimes, Casares told me, modeling self-care for my kids will also involve setting a firm boundary around my needs. During a recent school holiday, she planned to spend the entire day with her daughter — after a brief phone call with a colleague. “I had that 30 minutes carved out really for myself and for something that mattered to me. And so self-care at that moment effectively looked like me saying to my child, ‘You need to find another way to distract yourself or to play with your toys, or to do something around the house while I do this thing.’”
Her daughter struggled through the call when she had a technology mishap. Casares looked her in the eye and said, "You’ll need to problem-solve on your own.” Even just that small act can feel radical in a society where moms are never encouraged to put themselves first. The call, which centered around a creative endeavor she is working on, was critical to her well-being and needs. “That was what true self-care looked like for me that day,” she told me.
Howell says she feels extra pressure as a mom of two boys. “It's so important for mothers to model self-care for their sons, especially, because we do live in a patriarchal society and I want my sons to see that I am worthy of self-care and that I am a human who deserves to rest, relax and do things that bring me joy," she says. I also have two boys and often think about the types of fathers and partners they will be if they choose that path. Despite our attempt at an egalitarian household, I see society creeping into their thoughts about work, care and parenting.
Howell notes that it’s important the boys learn it for themselves, too. Men aren't immune to burnout and self-neglect. “I also want to model self-care for them so that they know that they should be encouraged to have a life full of little joys — and big joy — and that we don't need to hustle all of the time.” She cites the example of going to the doctor or dentist, which we view as necessary and try to prioritize. It’s not different, she says. “Self-care is the foundation for everything and we need to invest time, and sometimes money, into our own joy.”
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