A Realist's Guide to Self-Care That Doesn't Involve Meditation

People ask you this a lot when you're parenting young children, or going through some kind of a crisis. They often follow it up with a suggestion that is either time-consuming or expensive, or both. I agree that self-care is essential, but those suggestions can leave me feeling like there's yet one more thing I should be doing but I'm not.
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Our family is currently in the process of adopting our second son -- a three-and-a-half-year-old boy from L.A. County foster care system. A friend stopped by the other night and as I was busy burning some chicken for us, I caught her looking at me with a combination of horror and pity. She subtly pointed to her own cheek to indicate the presence of chocolate or magic marker or or some other less-desirable mystery item. It turned out my bright lipstick (the shade I chose to cheer myself up) had migrated across my face, leaving me looking like some demented David Lynch character. I hadn't noticed because I hadn't looked in the mirror in roughly 12 hours.

"What are you doing to take care of yourself?" she asked.

People ask you this a lot when you're parenting young children, or going through some kind of a crisis. They often follow it up with a suggestion that is either time-consuming or expensive, or both. I agree that self-care is essential, but those suggestions can leave me feeling like there's yet one more thing I should be doing but I'm not.

Are you doing yoga?
Nope. Not currently finding 2.5 hours a day, including transportation time, to stretch.

Are you meditating?
Nope. Never. Hate it. Yup- I said it. I have tried and tried and have now finally given myself a lifetime pass to never do it again. You can smile at me with that odd blend of compassion/smugness all day long and I still won't Nam Myoho with you. I will, however, watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer and drink wine with you late at night if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

Are you seeing a therapist?
I actually do know a terrific therapist, but she's an hour away and she's expensive and it simply isn't realistic for me to go see her at this point. I'm going to have to figure out a way to weather this storm without her.

Are you taking enough time for you?
Does bingeing on popcorn while answering emails at midnight count? Then YES I most certainly am!

There have been times in my life that I have written for hours every day, had a regular exercise schedule, gone to therapy, and even had extra time to get my nails done and to go out to lunch with a girlfriend once in a while. Before my second child showed up, life was pretty much like that. My seven-year-old son was settled in school, and had become less of a wild destructive pirate and more of a totally delightful pirate. Things were feeling pretty manageable.

But self-care is a moving target. All of us in our home right now are experiencing growing pains, as our family makes that huge leap from three humans to four. The new member of the pirate crew is a wonder and we're crazy about him, but the attachment process with a toddler who has experienced severe neglect is also a real challenge and requires near-constant engagement. Not to mention the fact that our days are jam-packed with social workers, adoption counselors, lawyers, therapists, behaviorists... So the manicures and lunches have gone out the window, and I'm still puzzling through what exactly self-care is going to look like during this transition phase. It's okay, for a moment, to have gruesome cuticles. But I do still need to find ways to care for myself.

This is equally true for any time one finds oneself under duress and in total survival mode- the kinds of days when well-intentioned suggestions that you "get a massage" or some such thing make you want to punch someone right in the snout. I redefine daily what it's going to take to stay sane. I often find that it's not about adding an item (even if that item is a massage) to the to-do list. Rather, it's a matter of shifting perspective and finding ways to infuse care into unexpected moments.

Here are ten suggestions that have been working for me:

1. Adjust your expectations. Before pirate #2 showed up, I was going to boot camp at my friend's house two mornings a week and going to barre classe on Saturday mornings. It was social and I felt great about myself and my abs were stellar! Now, I walk with the stroller around the lake. The end. If I wait until I can do everything to the degree that I'd like, I'll wind up doing nothing. And a walk in the fresh air is infinitely better than nothing.

2. Slow down your transitions. That sounds so boring, I know. But when I have a ton to do, I can get into a sloppy, rushed mode that's not only un-fun but also dangerous, particularly when it comes to cooking or driving or anything with sharp edges and moving parts. One thing I've learned from having two kids who struggle with transitions, is to slow way down and talk them through it. So I've started to do the same for myself. After I drop off my older son at school, I have a spot around the corner, where I pull the car over and just breathe and reconfigure my brain. I answer my texts. I pick out a podcast for the way home. I decide if I'm going to grab a latte or not. I take a breath. If the little one is with me, I still do an abbreviated version of this.

3. Give yourself small treats. If my toddler is napping and I have a million emails to answer, I make sure I find a sunny spot on the couch. I drink a bottle of cream soda. If it's chilly, I throw my favorite orange cashmere blanket over my legs. Sure, I'd prefer to do all of the above AND be reading a good book, but sometimes you gotta get stuff done. You can sweeten the deal a bit if you allow yourself to enjoy the little things while you're doing it.

4. Listen to great music. If they don't want to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, they can go ahead and whine all they want. I mean, they'll whine me anyway, and at least this way I'll have listened to "My Shot" eight times, and I won't care as much.

5. Read. Even for five minutes before bed. This is a way to connect to your inner life and remember that whatever is happening on the outside, it's still there, waiting.

6. Pay attention to your self-talk. This one is closely related to adjusting expectations. It's not my habit to speak kindly to myself. I'm stupid and lazy and sloppy and fat and old and mediocre and talentless and a failure and a lousy mother and a basket case and and and.... If anyone talked to my children like that, I'd breathe fire. If I imagine when I'm talking to myself that I'm practicing talking to my kids, I'm way more likely to say, "You're doing great, sweetheart. I love how hard you're trying. I'm here for you. It's going to be okay."

7. Wear bright lipstick. Or fun shoes. Or whatever makes you feel jazzed. For me it's a locket I love that belonged to my Aunt May. Maybe this is shallow and maybe it isn't, but I know that it helps me an awful lot to sport something that gives me a lift.

8. Cook dinner. This sometimes feels like drudgery and is sometimes the best part of my day. Even when it starts out the former, it often turns into the latter once the olive oil and onions are in the pan and things start to smell good. This is a way of nurturing my family and myself. It grounds me in the present and gives me the happy illusion of control.

9. Pray. Whatever this means to you- it doesn't need to be anything formal. Maybe it's a traditional prayer or maybe it's more of a meditation or affirmation. My prayers are mostly a lot of "thanks" and "help." Prayer reminds me that I don't need to have every answer. That I don't have to feel capable of what's in front of me in order to just do it anyway. That I am not in charge of anyone's future. And that I am not alone.

10. Write. Or whatever's your chosen form of creative expression. I write early in the morning or late at night, for a stolen hour here and there. I write poorly, in jumbled, half-baked prose. Half the time lately, I feel barely literate. But I do it. Regardless of the quality of the product, the process reframes the world for me in surprising ways, as it has always done. In fact, this post came from a journal prompt I gave myself yesterday morning: What does self care mean to you?


What does self-care mean to you today?