In the first six weeks after giving birth, I hauled my completely healthy son to the pediatrician five times while I troubleshot my own busted vaginal stitches and clogged milk ducts and low breast milk supply all by myself.
Schlepping his giant, 20-pound car seat from my vehicle to the pediatrician’s office, I felt my body shake and almost buckle. When I finally booked an appointment to deal with the stitches that had given up on holding the lower half of my body together, I had to drive two hours round-trip to leave Jackson with my sister-in-law because no one wanted to come to me.
When he refused to sleep, I wore him in his carrier or pushed him in a stroller every day, again and again. As soon as I set him down in the crib, he’d startle as if pinched and wail awake.
So I wore him in a baby carrier and paced for the hours until he woke up.
Night and day.
Friends and family told me my son was “too fussy,” “too much of a mama’s boy,” and “too little to be away from me,” when I asked them to babysit so I could write or go to therapy. Or just sit and heal.
When a close family friend came to visit, I complained about how exhausted I was wearing him in the carrier all day. I expected her to whisk the baby out of my arms and demand I take a nap.
She just sighed and, from where she was standing three feet away from us, said, “Well, I hope you have a good back.”
Spoiler alert: I didn’t. I don’t.
Over and over again, people said, “Sleep when he sleeps,” and “Make time for yourself,” and “I hope you’re recharging your battery, too.”
I wanted to shove a burp cloth into their mouths and send them packing. Instead I smiled and nodded. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
It’s not just them.
I marvel at the parenting gurus, talk show hosts, and self-help authors instructing me step-by-step how to take care of myself as if ignorance is my only obstacle to flat abs and inner peace.
All day I intuit and meet needs. My caring muscle has grown strong and toned from non-stop use.
I know how to slice his grapes so he’ll be able to grasp them but not choke on them. I know the Malibu sunset shade of pink his eyelids turn when he needs a nap. I know a tired cry from a lonely cry from a hungry cry.
So let me say loudly and clearly to society at large—and that family friend—that I do not need you to verbally empower me to take read a novel or eat a healthy meal.
I need you to watch my kid.
When society pushes self-care, they let themselves off the hook for helping out in real, practical ways. We can tell mothers to be kind to themselves, walk away feeling proud, and never change a diaper.
Recently I watched an episode of Queer Eye in which the Fab Five made over a father of six who worked two jobs and slept an average of two hours a night.
“It’s important to keep making an effort so your partner will keep finding you attractive,” said Tan.
I spit out my La Croix on the sofa. “Did they just hear him say he’s chronically sleep-deprived and has six children?” I yelled in the general direction of our television. “Do they really think all he needs is hair pomade and faux leather shoes from Target?”
I love the Queer Eyes guys, but I want them to stop lecturing beleaguered, burdened, cash-strapped parents about self-care and call me back when they’re offering to move next door and babysit.
We don’t need instructions for self-care; we need community. Not just parents. All of us.
After I started experiencing the failures of the self-care movement, I decided to look up its roots. Were they as bougie and millennial as they seemed?
It turns out, no. Doctors invented the self-care movement in the 1970s while trying to assist their terminal patients. For a demographic so limited—both in their everyday bodily abilities and the time they had left—self-care meant reclaiming what little agency they could.
From there, minorities used self-care as a way to resist oppression. When racism threatened to snuff out their very existence, just taking care of their basic needs spoke defiance.
From its inception, self-care was a last resort for the desperate and the voiceless. What does this say about us that we recommend it to new parents? That we act as if this meager and hard-won grace, taking care of oneself, is a gold standard?
I believe society offers self-care propaganda not by way of kindness, but dismissal. When we tell parents to take care of themselves, we effectively say, here, do it yourself. Because we aren’t going to help you.
They say, “Sleep when the baby is sleeping!” instead of offering paid maternity leave.
They say, “Learn a new hobby!” instead of offering affordable childcare so women can work, support their families, and actualize their gifts.
They say, “Try keeping a journal!” instead of improving access to mental health treatment.
They say, “Give yourself a pedicure!” instead of offering adequate post-partum healthcare.
We need policy changes at a state and federal level—badly—but these changes start at a heart level.
If you’re an aunt or a neighbor or a retiree with time to spare, step up. If your hands are free, offer them up to the new parent whose hands are, constantly, full. If you’re a young single person, invite your elderly neighbor to dinner. Instead of ordering yourself a Birchbox or Stitchfix, make a care package for someone who needs it.
One day our single, twentysomething friend Pieter offers to babysit. I gush. “Of course! Do you know how to change a diaper?”
“No, but I’ve watched three Youtube videos on how to avoid getting peed on!”
I couldn’t have loved him more.
The world’s tried and failed to invent a perpetual motion machine, a device that churns endlessly without energy input from another source, but so far they’ve failed.
We’re not self-sufficient; we can’t be our own fuel.
So, go ahead, get your pedicure and order that takeout pad thai. But know that you, like the rest of us, need community. And the community needs you.