Self-Care and Community Care

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There’s a disturbing obsession with “self-care” in the birthworker/full-spectrum/reproductive justice/caring professions community. Almost every conference we attend, magazine we read, public campaign geared towards us is pushing “self-care” as the antidote to increasingly public discussions of burnout and compassion fatigue. As if busy, caring, self-sacrificing people need one more person to worry about and care for: themselves.

I take issue with this for a few reasons:

While there is increasing critical awareness that “self-care” should constitute more than pampering and self indulgence (a box of chocolates and a bubble bath will not solve all your stress problems), many discussions on self-care just sound absurd to those in the caring professions. Adding more tasks to our day and more things to be responsible for and aspire to is just a recipe for feeling inadequate (“I’m not doing enough taking care of people at work, and now I’m also failing at taking care of myself”). Cut that out. When I do (rarely) discuss “self-care” with clients and colleagues I’m all about normalizing the little tasks they are already doing in their life to care for themselves and re-framing them as “self-care”, or if I’m adding a task, I keep it to something that will take less than a minute.

    • Taking your dog on a walk is self-care! Moving your body and being outside! Spending time with another creature!  

    • Texting your friend back after a few days of ignoring text messages is self-care! Connecting with community! Reaching out to reinforce friendships!

    • Staring at Facebook on your phone while sitting on the couch is self-care! It’s nice to disconnect from one world and be in another when you feel overwhelmed!

    • Taking an extra minute in the shower just to lovingly clean your body is self-care!

Yesterday, in therapy, after complaining about how tired and stretched-thin I was, and how this was my first real day off in a long time but I still had a million things to do, she paused and then asked me, “What are you going to sacrifice today, for your own care and happiness?” She explained she would often ask people what they were going to do that day to take care of themselves, but with someone like me, felt the more productive question was what was I not going to do. The best I could come up with was giving up feeling guilty for inevitably not completing my list of things to do that day.

But the biggest issue I take with a push for us all to improve our “self-care” practices, is it lets our friends, family, and community off the hook for thinking about and caring for us. If I’ve spent all day caring for people, when I come home, I just want someone else to take care of me. It is totally appropriate that my husband cooks dinner and packs a lunch for the next day for me. When it was my birthday, a colleague went out and got special cupcakes for me and we all celebrated at practice meeting. When I hosted a pay-what-you-can retreat a few years ago for dear colleagues and friends which resulted in me having to personally cover a lot of costs (because birthworkers are broke! pay your support people!), one participant took some extra nannying shifts and took me out to dinner the next month, paid for dinner, and handed me $300. She just couldn’t live with the community not supporting me after all the work I’d put in.

These kinds of gestures typically make me uncomfortable. I try to deflect them, tell myself I don’t need them, or deserve them, or other folks are stretched thin too so I can’t accept… but instead, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the responsibility we have, in community with people in the caring professions, to think about them and take care of them. They deserve it. It is absurd to ask burnt-out folks to also be responsible for healing themselves. Maybe when they’re less frazzled they can take loving steps toward their own healing, but if you’re observing your loved one/community member tired from caring for others all day, and your advice is “take better care of yourself” : you’re doing it wrong. Take care of them yourself. Give them back an ounce of what they exude to others all day. Help them feel loved and cared for and held by community.