Yes, We Know Self-Care is Important (an Introduction):
A few years ago, just after I graduated with my MA, I was was asked to participate in a panel discussion for incoming graduate students. One of the students posed a question to the panel about self-care, and balancing work and life in grad school, and everyone turned to look at me because everyone knew this was in my wheelhouse. My scholarship is situated in the realm of emotions, embodiments, and community relations, so the notion of wellness is folded in to my scholarly pursuits. Indeed, I had spent a lot of time in grad school focusing on care, whether for self or one another. And as an alumni turned faculty member, my perspective should have provided insight and encouragement. In short, I should have nailed the answer. Instead, I completely fumbled. Like, not just a little. I catastrophically fumbled. I actually said something to the effect of, “I had so much to do that the idea that I was also supposed to stop doing all the things to take care of myself became a source of guilt, perpetuating a severe anxiety loop that seemed inescapable.”
I work full-time in higher education. My job, like most jobs in education, is not constrained to 9-5 Monday-Friday. There’s more work to do than time to do it in, and a lot of my work is relationship dependent, and so ebbs, flows, gets messy and complicated, and doesn’t always align with my calendar or to-do list.
I also homeschool both kids right now. That job, like any homeschooling caregiver would tell you, is also full-time. There’s planning and prep work. There’s content delivery and assessment. It also is relationship dependent, and so, just like my “real” full-time job, gets messy and complicated and doesn’t always align with my calendar and to-do list.
I also try to homestead, or at least as much as we can do right now. Homesteading is a value-system and a lifestyle, which means that if I’m not doing it all, I tend to feel like an impostor at best and a hypocrite at worst. Homesteading for me means we try to make a lot of our own things from scratch, whether that’s food or home improvement projects, using the skills we already have but also stretching ourselves to constantly grow and learn new things. It also means we try to build a community around us, which is, in part, the motivation for this blog. This means a lot of attention to gardening, to animals, to cooking seasonally and from whole ingredients, and reducing waste–trying to make-do and improvise and constantly, consistently striving for more knowledge and more skill–alongside blogging, vlogging, Instagram-ing and networking.
I am also a mother. And a wife. These relational entanglements are fragile–they require care and attention and hard work to maintain and build and grow.
And I am also a person. Just me. I am also fragile. I require care and attention and hard work to maintain and build and grow.
I am, thanks to the amazing women who paved this path with blood and strength, able to have these options; to have the choice, and a path to having it all. But, our society has yet to let go of its cultural norms and systemic patriarchy, and so here I am, more often than not doing it all.
We exist in a system informed by gender and lived experiences that means that yes, even now in 2021, we women still do the lion’s share of the household and family management. There are exceptions to this, of course, but they are still exceptions; they are in opposition to what is considered normal. Men get congratulated on a daily basis for doing what women have been expected to do alone for centuries. We have a second-gentleman for the first time in Washington who is, thankfully, quick to point this out.
The idea that we women are in charge of our own self-care and that this is the secret to doing it all is sexist to the core. If we’re doing it all, even taking care of ourselves, there is simply mathematically not enough time in a lifetime to get it all done, and so it feels shameful. We blame ourselves. We feel guilt over working too much. We feel like failures. And so the loop repeats.
I know I’m not alone. I also know that women are not alone in this, though that is my experience and what I am speaking to in this post. There are people all over the world who experience all manner of mental and emotional health crises and slumps. Not all of them can point to self-care as an intervention. Nor is access to self-care something that is equitable in our culture, not just because of sexism, but because of racism, classism, colonialism, capitalism, and prejudice. I don’t pretend to have all the right answers, nor am I recommending all of my journey would intervene in your life in the same ways. I am, however, sharing my self-care thoughts and journey here, plus a little of the wisdom of trial and error I’ve picked-up along the way, in hope that it supports, encourages, commiserates, and maybe even comforts some of you.
My 2020 Pandemic Self-Care Journey:
Ever since this pandemic first impacted my life directly in early March of 2020, when I began working from home full-time, I have been reflecting more and more on self-care because I knew it would be more important now than ever. It’s something I had already been trying to do more of, anyway, but hadn’t always done successfully, as illustrated in the brief anecdote I shared in the introduction. You see, self-care is something we talk a lot about, but for women, especially women who are doing it all, we don’t often talk about the things that get in the way and how that feels in our bodies. I get emails from university chancellor’s recommending I take advantage of this program or that, or that I take time for myself, but the working conditions of my job plus the expectations of my family life make that untenable.
All of the self-care I had been undertaking helped stem the hurricane, sure. I no longer suffered from major panic and anxiety attacks as I had throughout grad school. I considered this a huge win and a sign that what I was doing was working. But it wasn’t enough. By Fall of 2020 I was burnt-out. I had what I described best as leadership fatigue. I was in charge of everything. I was leading because that’s what everyone needed from me and what my position in higher education demanded; it’s what my family needed–each person in the middle of their own mental health crisis and journeys. I carefully managed my emotions, my behaviors, and my time in order to manage the emotions and wellbeing of those in my care–those I lead. But it was lonely and the responsibility overwhelming. I had so many decisions to make every day and each one of them impacted bodies and relationships in long-term, potentially devastating ways.
Last Spring, at the outset of this work-from-home pandemic journey, I focused my self-care on the garden. This was something I had dearly missed in grad school because, I was right, I simply did not have the time. Every spare moment, including every single vacation we took during that time period, involved me reading and writing for my thesis. I wrote on trains, in cars, on planes, in deserts, on lakes, over oceans, and in moutnains. I had felt for a long time like a part of me was missing–the homesteading part. It felt wonderful to dig-in, get dirty, and grow so much lovely food. But then summer ended, and our greenhouse we knew would not be warm enough without more infrastructure. And so we put everything to bed, letting it rest.
In Fall I wanted to focus on my physical well-being. I had gained weight in grad school (no surprise given the stress and the long hours sitting at a computer) and had not had the opportunity to meaningfully exercise enough to get it off. Surely, working from home with a forest in my back yard, I could fit this in. But then I didn’t. And when I didn’t, I felt guilty; like I lacked discipline and focus. I am weak. I am the source of all of my anxiety. Because I am in charge of my self-care.
I regrouped. The advice is always to lower your expectations, make smaller, more attainable goals: “OK, maybe I don’t need to lose all my grad school weight in the middle of a global pandemic. Let’s just focus on wellness.” I tried to reinvigorate my once-daily yoga practice–15 minutes in the morning. I began listening to audiobooks while doing chores or cooking dinner. I let myself splurge on fluffy books with next to no content instead of weighty literature. I bought Bath and Body Works out of an aromatherapy scent I adored and that made me feel content whenever I smelled it. I diffused a similar scent at the dining table where I work all day. I focused on taking 10 minute walks–just 10 minutes–as an act of forest bathing where I would use my senses to ground myself rather than thinking of it as exercise. I started talking with students about self-care, comparing what we all were doing. I went to weekly and sometimes bi-weekly therapy appointments.
And still, by Christmas I was completely burnt-out.
And so I took deliberate and careful time over Winter Break to reflect. (side note: I resisted saying “winter break” because faculty do not get breaks. “Breaks” are when we do all the work we don’t have time for). But, sure, I had a lot of planning and prep to do for Spring, but without the daily management of teaching, I did have more time. Besides, planning and prep when done effectively can be a form of self-care. And that’s how I framed it for myself: If I put the time in now, then all Spring semester, I just have to follow along. No more daily decisions. Just stick to the plan.
I thought about where I felt the most stressed, when I felt the most stressed, and what I could control or how I could interevene to help. I journaled about it. Talked to myself about it. Talked to God about it. And came-up with a one word answer: agency.
All of my teaching and mentorship in higher education focuses on fostering this within the students in my care. Now, I knew I needed my family to be able to enact agency. Agency means that intrinsic motivation, responsibility, and effort coalesce happily towards a goal or deliverable. It means that people feel confident to make decisions and choices for themselves and connected to the relationships in their life enough to make meaningful and reciprocal interventions. In other words, agency would help create loving boundaries for me, as a leader, and for my kids, as growing learners.
This would relieve the leadership burden I felt. It would even power dynamics in my relationships. It would release some of the time committment of my responsibilities. It would create time I could use for myself without me feeling like I was taking it from somewhere else. And, it would also benefit everyone in my family. I developed a multi-level plan in the areas that I knew would have the greatest impact, and have added them to the pile of self-care strategies I just discussed. Here’s what it looks like:
Kelin’s Agency Intervention Self-Care Strategy 1: Relationship
With a life partner, it helps when you both are pulling the same wheelbarrow, so to speak. Brian and I had been pulling two separate wheelbarrows for years, each of us trying to grow and do and become independently and in different directions towards different end-goals. We knew we desperately needed to work together, but we communicate so differently it was hard to understand how to do this. I also knew I needed a way to share the responsibility for self-care for both of us as partners, and the strict divison of labor we were doing wasn’t cutting it.
So for Christmas, I made Brian a relationship box.
I used a recipe box and notecards. Using the dividing tabs that came with the box, I sectioned-off the 5 love languages (physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and gifts) and 3 levels of dates (free or inexpensive, moderate, and splurge). On the notecards I wrote actions that could be taken to satisfy each love language and ideas for dates at each level. For example:
- physical touch = hold hands while watching television
- acts of service = take on something for me today to support self-care time
- quality time = cook a meal together
- words of affirmation = write an encouraging note for something accomplished that wsa hard
- gifts = pick a gift from the list (yes, we each wrote ideas of things we wanted)
When we’re feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, and even ignored or unloved, it’s likely that our “relationship bucket” is empty, so we can go to the relationship box, pull out the card that moves us in that moment, and simply display it in the lid, where the card would be displayed if it were a recipe, for the other to find. No questions asked.
The funny thing is, since introducing the box, neither of us has had to pull-out a card to display. The idea that these are the relationship interventions we have in our “tool box,” makes us more attentive to doing them each day. As you might have guessed, this is agency–each of us acting on our own accord for a shared goal that also creates in us beneficial emotions that has the lovely side-effect of helping us in our daily lives. It both creates more time for self-care and creates a shared responsibility for self-care beyond the individual.
Kelin’s Agency Intervention Self-Care Strategy 2: Parenting
At 10 1/2 and 12 1/2, my kids are ready for some major agency intervention. I explained how I changed our approach to homeschooling in my previous post, which is designed to increase their level of control and responsibility (and intrinsic motivation) in their learning. It also has dramatically decreased the amount of time each day I have to spend in direct management of their learning.
In addition, though, we also implemented the Hull Family Weekly Meeting. Every Sunday after virtual church we gather in our main living room. The meeting has a standing agenda, printed in the Notes on our family shared calendar.
In their journals for school, at the beginning of each week, both kids have to plan their breakfasts and lunches. I have a printed list of all the breakfast and lunch options available from things we always have on hand. It’s up to them to make the plan, communicate it to me, and negotiate if I will be providing any of the cooking for those meals. Most of the time, I’m not. Some of the time I am, but it’s usually something I prep on the weekend, like corndog muffins, chicken nuggets, or breakfast burritos. It also gives me an opportunity to make transparent the work of the food: one kid wants the special yogurt that I can only get on Thursdays from Market Wagon on a Tuesday. Not possible. Make a different choice. Or, no, I can’t make chicken nuggets this weekend because I either don’t have time or we’re out of chicken. If you wanted chicken nuggets, you should have put in a request before I did the shopping. Make a different choice.
Meals negotiated, we move on to self-assessing their chore completion. I printed-off a list of every chore I needed them to do each week in order to maintain what I call our home’s “ecosystem.” I stress that it is an ecosystem because if one person doesn’t do a chore when they say they’re going to do it, the whole system tends to fall apart. I gave them each the choice of chores, day of week, and time of day. Choice is critical to encouraging agency. Underneath each assignment is an area to check it off. At the meeting, they go through and count their checks then record their score of how many completed out of how many possible checks. We negotiate whether anything needs to change and talk a lot about learning and growing. Nobody will be perfect, but we should see a positive progression over time. I stress which chores are most important to the ecosystem. And if there is, for example, a regression instead of a positive progression, they have to journal about why this happened–what got in the way–so we can discuss strategies. Sometimes they get to suggest a consequence.
Next we compare our schedules. The kids grab their syllabusses with the semester schedule, which helps them preview and prepare for Monday morning. Brian and I pull-out our work calendars. We have an honest dialogue about what we can expect from one another this week based on how busy we all are. This helps the kids understand themselves in relation to us, which is also crucial for agency. At this point in time, we also make at least one plan for a family quality time activity–watching a movie, playing a board game, or going on a hike are all favorite picks.
Lastly, we have a feelings check-in. Liam found a heart-shaped rock when we were last in South Haven on the beach, so we take turns holding the rock and discussing how we’re feeling. This models a lot for the kids when Brian and I take our turns, and also helps them learn to express and advocate for themselves difficult feelings that might arise. It helps them feel valued and respected as people, and we don’t discourage them voicing complicated and difficult emotions that might have arisen during the meeting. It also helps us all know who might need extra support and care this week.
This meeting has been crucial to me releasing some of the leadership burden I was feeling because it consistently reinforces everyone’s ability to participate and intervene in the family.
Kelin’s Agency Intervention Self-Care Strategy 3: The Work Calendar
This strategy is less about agency than it is about restructuring the daily management I found so stressful to making decisions. I think the Dave Ramsay saying about telling your money where to go is the same for your time. I decided to tell my time where to go, very deliberately and with a lot of careful thought, until the end of the semester, when I know I’ll have fewer constraints. I have told myself when I need to shower if I am to fit-in my new routine of 15-20 minutes of pilates each morning. I have told myself when I am prepping for class, attending to the administrivia of the writing center, when I am eating lunch, reading, writing, attending therapy, and squeezing in a 20 minute workout in the middle of the day. I have scheduled recurring meetings with students I know will need my support and with co-workers I know I will need to communicate with. I simply have operated my calendar as one would a Dave Ramsay budget: on a near-zero balance.
I have left a few precious hours here and there each week for those necessary meetings and other incidental interactions that need to happen, but for the most part, from now until my birthday in May, I know what I need to do each and every day to get it all done. (And, consequently, what I have to say No to in the meantime).
I always thought this would stress me out because I could see how behind I would be getting. It has rather had the opposite effect, though. I can more easily make critical decisions about my time based on the balance I’ve already tabulated. I can prioritize, adjust, and adapt quicker and with less emotional effort than ever before. So I missed a workout today–it doesn’t mean I lack discipline, it means something more important needed my care and attention in that moment. I have 3 workouts scheduled in the week. My goal is to hit 2 of them.
We’re three weeks in. I’ve managed pilates every work morning. I’ve snuck in workouts. I feel not only happier but more energized, more able to participate and do and be in my daily grind than I have in a long time. I feel like I’m operating at my best right now, which is not something I think has happened in two years.
Brian sees us as a system of relations with effects and affects that circulate and cause patterns. We are bodies in relation to one another, not islands or buckets, responsible for ourselves. We are better partners to one another.
I am a better mother to my growing kids. I no longer have to manage everyone’s time all day every day, and that alone has been a huge weight off my shoulders. They know what they need to do. They know when to do it. And they are in charge of self-assessing whether or not it got done.
And I am better to myself. When self-care doesn’t happen, it is either a choice I made for self-care (“I don’t want to do pilates this morning; I’d rather read a book and sip my coffee”) or a choice I made that is still for me (“if I have this meeting today instead of next week, it means that week won’t feel as bogged down”). It is not a lack of discipline. A failing. Self-care is no longer solely my responsibility. It is shared between all of us. In designing systems for agency, I no longer have to do it all.
For more thoughts on a feminist approach to self-care, read this excellent article from CoFEM.