“Self-care” is all the buzz in motherhood circles these days.
“Moms need to take self-care into their own hands,” reads Good Housekeeping magazine. “Your self-care isn’t negotiable, it is necessary to be the best mom possible,” says HuffPost Life. “Prioritize previous activities that brought you happiness. Crack open a book when you can. Take deep breaths at a stop light. Get familiar with self-care apps,” says Working Mother magazine.
The idea is that mothers better find ways to take better care of themselves if they’re going to withstand the lopsided 24-7 responsibilities of their lives.
And yet, telling already overcooked mothers they have to try harder is like making teachers take the blame for a failed education system.
What happens when Mom comes back from yoga class? Will the 60-40 imbalance of house- and child-care work between partners have shifted, not to mention the overload of work for a single mother? Or will things at home actually be worse because the complicated network Mom manages was neglected while she was standing in tree pose? Does Mom need one more manufactured moment on her must-do list? Or would it be better if her to-do list were lightened by a wide variety of supports and resources so that self-care was a natural part of a balanced life?
Mom needs to take time for herself, to be sure; a study of 2,000 American mothers of children 5-12 commissioned by Welch’s Grape Fruit Juice, says mothers work 98 hours a week, while another study of British moms by TVBed.com has Mum getting only 17 minutes a day to herself.
But for my money, laying the responsibility on Mom to make everything all better by taking better care of herself lets everybody else off the hook.
There’s something deeper here that needs addressing, namely the confines of a society that chooses to see motherhood as a field of daffodils but ignores the seeds and soil and water it took to get there.
If we really want overstretched mothers to feel better, the greater focus needs not be on care from within, but care, respect and understanding from without. What women need is not more self-care in isolation, but community care in every corner of her life.
This is not so simplistic, by the way, as having a partner who asks “How can I help?”
Nor is community care as straightforward as implementing better public policies like some experts believe. Consider Japan, capitalist and patriarchal like the United States, where subsidized childcare, parental leave and flex work time policies were rolled out, and then not taken advantage of.
“What they found was that there just wasn’t any uptake of it, in part because the culture hadn’t changed along with the policies,” says journalist Amy Westervelt, author of “Forget ‘Having It All’: How America Messed Up Motherhood — and How to Fix It.”
What the institutions of motherhood and family need is a drastic overhaul from the inside out, Westervelt wrote for The Guardian in her article, “U.S. mothers don’t just need new policies — they need a cultural shift.”
What mothers need is respect and understanding from every cranny of society, for what it takes to grow and manage a human family, especially within the context of workplace demands and diminished community. And then others need to be motivated to contribute.
“We do this thing a lot in the U.S. where we talk about mothers in this way of like, ‘Oh, they’re nurturers, and they’re so valuable, and the family is so important,’ but when it comes down to it, we don’t give any actual value to caregiving tasks,” Westervelt said.
If I could make a wish for Mother’s Day, it would not be for all mothers to have the opportunity to engage in more self-care in between soccer and piano.
It would be for systemic change, for a valuing of motherhood from every angle, including the work place and legislatures.
I would wish for a de-gendering of the roles of parenting and running a house, with everybody engaged in making it happen.
I would wish for every institution to pitch in to replace the missing extended family.
I would wish for mothers to get help finding other ways to express motherhood besides endless self-sacrifice and tireless devotion to the point of exhaustion.
I would wish for mothers to see each other and be seen.
To love each other.
I would wish for partners to step up, without being asked.
I would wish for more people besides mothers (and teachers) engaging in acts of self-sacrifice.
With a full community engaged, with everybody helping lead and tend the people who will become the next generation, then I could see mothers truly beginning to relax into other rights and roles, like really learning how to do down dog.
In mental health coach Sara Robinson’s pretty little book, “Self-Care for Moms: 150+ Real Ways to Care for Your Self While Caring for Everyone Else,” is a tiny section called “Let others help.” In this section, Robinson suggests that we mothers ask for gifts for self-care for Mother’s Day, like books we want to read, a gift certificate for a house-cleaning service…
To which I would add: “Speak the truth of your life. Ask older children and fathers and grandmothers, professors, preachers, lawmakers, psychologists and employers to sit down and listen. Then ask them to consider ways, all on their own, to fill in the gaps, while you take a long, luscious nap, knowing the entire community has your back.”
If I could make a wish for Mother’s Day, it would be for all mothers to get the care they need.
Without always having to create it themselves.
You know, like the kind we give everybody else.
And not just on the second Sunday in May, but forever and a day.
Debra-Lynn B. Hook has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column’s Facebook group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.