What does self-care mean?

I had an interesting experience the other day. The last week of November and first week of December were incredibly busy for me with lots of births, full days of clinic, and lots of postpartum visits all over the Fraser Valley — which meant a lot of driving. Last Sunday after having been up for 24 hours, I recognized that I needed to ask for help and be off call for the next 24 hours. I was physically, emotionally, and mentally done, and in order for me to continue to provide safe, compassionate care, I needed to be able to have this time off.  So I called a colleague and got the call coverage that I needed.
What was interesting about the experience were the feelings that were coming up for me as I set my boundaries and chose myself. I felt guilty. Guilty for potentially inconveniencing my colleague who also had had a very busy few days; guilty for even needing that time off. Shouldn’t I be able to push through? I recognized in that moment that I have an agreement, a self-belief that being strong means to persevere no matter what. But what if being strong means to know when to surrender?
As I continued to reflect on why it had been challenging for me to ask for help in that moment, I saw a relationship between what I was going through and what many mothers may be going through when they are told to ‘do self-care.’ Over the last few years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of ‘self-care.’ There is a recognition of the obvious that we do not carry inside of us a bottomless well of energy that never gets depleted. Just like our bank accounts and batteries, if we don’t put money in them, or re-charge them, eventually there will be nothing left,; or even if you manage to find some way to draw some energy out, it will come with great cost to your health, self, and even relationships.
But there is something missing from this conversation. Lots of somethings.
What do we even mean when we say self-care? These days it seems like the message out there is that self-care means to do something nice for yourself like go for pedicure, or to ignore the dishes and have some ‘me-time’. But if we use this narrow definition of self-care, “just take care of yourself” and “do some self-care” can become just another task on your list, one that feels draining instead of life-giving. “Ok, I’ve scheduled in some self-care between 4-5. I can get an hour in of ‘self-care’ after the kids have had their snack, and before I need to start on dinner.” That sounds exhausting. That kind of conversation around self-care also doesn’t always take into account the reality of day to day life. It’s easy to say, “just relax today and don’t worry about doing the dishes”, but if you’re the only one doing the dishes, then you know that if you don’t do them today, you will just have to do them tomorrow.
Worse, if self-care becomes yet something else that we need to accomplish, it can become another yardstick that we use to see that we don’t measure up, that in this too, we’re failing. Any conversation around self-care is problematic if the conversation isn’t had with compassion and tenderness for ourselves.
So I think we need to expand the definition of self-care: what if self-care means to hold space for ourselves? Azriel ReShel writes, “For me, holding space means becoming the container to experience myself; to grow, to feel, to express, to test out, to live. It is being present, treating yourself with care, consideration, kindness, compassion and love. Hearing the needs of your body and mind, feeling your emotions, and listening to the yearning of your soul.”
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So if we take self-care to mean holding space for ourselves, then the question of how to take care of ourselves begins to shift. Instead of becoming another task on your list, the questions become:
1 What do I need to be able to hear what my body and mind is trying to tell me?
2 What does experiencing myself mean?
3 What can I do to feel more present today?
4 How can I give myself ease and compassion today?
5 What is my soul yearning for?
The answers might very well be to for a pedicure or to read a good book, but it might also mean to reach out to a friend, go for a walk, play with your children. It might mean to plunk the kids in front of the TV for 4 hours and to rest on your couch, or to get up 5 minutes earlier to just be in silence. It might be spending an extra few minutes in the shower, appreciating the smell of your soap, or it might mean staring outside your window and tuning in your breath.
And it might be to do some chores. It could even be to sort through some old clothes if that’s what you feel called to do. Or it might even mean doing something you really don’t want to do, but if you do it now you know that you will be in a better frame of mind for it later, like doing your taxes, or letting someone know that, “sorry, I can’t make those 4 dozen cookies for the bake sale.”

But another missing piece to this conversation is what are internal barriers to taking care of ourselves? We cannot begin to choose Self if we cannot identify the ways in which we find it difficult. Oftentimes it will because of a belief, or an agreement that you have about the world. For example, like my thought that to be strong means to persevere. Maybe you have an agreement that people who ask for help are weak, or that motherhood means to always be selfless. Maybe there is a part of you that doesn’t feel like you deserve to choose yourself, or that putting yourself first is wrong. These agreements are ones that we’ve had our whole lives and don’t disappear overnight, but when we at least recognize that we have them, we can at least begin with compassion for ourselves, to see how they impact us.
So I sat with my guilt. I looked at my guilt with compassion and tenderness. “You work so hard”, I whispered to it and myself. “It’s hard to let go; you want to be there for everyone”.  “But today, I need to hold space for myself” I told that part of me that was struggling. And so I asked for help, chose myself, and took the day off.