What Do We Mean By 'Self-Care'?
Plus why everyone hates cocomelon + gut health sans diet culture
I was maybe 4 months post-partum, give or take, when someone told me about an app that was designed to guide you through a morning self-care routine. From recollection, it was an amalgamation of Morning Pages™, breath-work, and stretching. I think it may even have released small birds to throw open your window, let the sunshine flood your room, and then make the bed while you document your stream of consciousness in perfect cursive.
FUCK YOU, I thought to myself, while saying how lovely that sounded and forcing a smile.
Like many of you, I had a baby during a pandemic. I was also getting ready to publish my second book, trying to hold my business together, and generally attempting to fend of a breakdown, mostly unsuccessfully.
The notion of ‘self-care’ felt kind of affronting.
Now, I think back to all the mothers I worked with before I became a parent. All the mothers who I pleaded with to ‘put yourself first’, or to ‘take time for you’.1
What a fucking asshole!
I’m not the first person to write about the limitations of ‘self-care’. But I think the critique that self-care is not all 'bubble baths and manicures’, is also, missing the point. It’s easy to position the problem as one of commercialisation and over-consumption. It’s less straightforward, I think, to grapple with how our lives are fundamentally incongruent with systems of care.
Capitalism keeps us isolated from community, means we can’t take time off work to care for ourselves or our family or friends, forces us to push ourselves to breaking point, and then beyond. It keeps us in a perpetual state of overwhelm, panic, and anxiety. It’s reflected in the decimation of the institutions that are, at least in theory, there to protect us, our children, and the most vulnerable people in our communities.
And this is before we layer on any other form of oppression or marginalisation that manifests in both material deprivation, and collusion with our ‘not enoughness’.
When I hear the words ‘self-care’ these days, I think, how the hell is this a personal problem? Self-care is a rebrand of the neoliberal value of ‘individual responsibility’; and the solution lies in pulling up our bootstraps, and buying shit.
This dis-ease lives in our bodies, but it can’t be ‘cured’ by bubble baths, boundaries, or therapy. Collective problems need communal solutions.
And, I also recognise the ways my disillusion with the idea of self-care is also self-defeating. I’m exhausted, I’m burnt-out, I need a break. My kid doesn’t sleep, I sleep even less, my house has a hole in it (quite literally), we thought my husband was going to lose his job, and so many other things that individually are small but altogether feel gargantuan. And every friend I talk to seems to feel the same way - I wonder if you do too?
So, I’m sitting in the murkiness of trying to figure out what ‘self-care’ looks like, while also thinking about ways to build community and networks of care that render ‘self-care’ in the neoliberal sense, redundant.
Some small things that have felt nourishing lately:
Filling the freezer with food a neighbour cooked for us
A friend looking after A for a few hours when we discovered a damp problem in our flat which we needed to sort pronto
Connecting with people in book club or a workout class
Checking in with the CIHAS crew each week (<3)
Caring for plants (which feels like mutual care)
Sending voice notes that turn into podcasts to friends and getting podcast voice notes in return
I’m curious to hear from you - where do you land with self-care? Nihilism or necessity? How do you make time and space to prioritise ‘self-care’, especially if you have other caring responsibilities? Or, are you hanging on by a thread (I see you)? What about if you’re ND, have a chronic illness or are disabled? What do communities of care look like for you? What does resilience and resistance look like? What is survival?
Sending love and care to all of you who are in a place where ‘self-care’ just doesn’t cut it.
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