The first time I got a manicure after I had my son, I cried when the nail technician wrapped my clasped hands in the hot towel.
They were tears of bliss. It felt so good — otherworldly, almost — to sit in one place, hands limp, and be pampered. My nails still had the very last, peeling shadow of the sleek coat I had applied the week before I gave birth. That day, when my hands reached awkwardly over my voluminous stomach to reach the countertop, now seemed worlds away.
I left the salon invigorated, a shiny new coat of magenta making me feel fresh and feminine. I thought, ‘If self-care was important before I created a human being dependent on me for his every need, it’s even more important now.’
‘Remember this feeling,’ I recall noting firmly. ‘Remember to take care of yourself.’
But, when the boat of life starts to toss and turn, self-care is frequently the first thing to go overboard. Unlike your child’s needs, your employer’s (or employee’s) needs, your parents’ needs, or your husband’s needs (though that is often next to go), self-care somehow seems dispensable. Somewhere along the way — maybe it was in college, pulling an all-nighter before a final, or comforting a friend after a break-up into the wee hours of the morning — you learned to believe that you could run on zero. That whatever it took to function — caffeine, eye make-up, more caffeine — somehow, you could wing it.
This past year, I learned the hard way that self-care is not dispensable. I learned that if you run on zero for too long, the car is going to stop.
I went back to work when my son was 6-weeks old (despite having a c-section delivery). I began pumping four times a day to keep up my supply. I would skip my lunch break, scarfing down a sandwich while the breast pump whirred, so I could leave work an hour early to pick up my son from childcare and bus home, baby tucked neatly in the carrier. I would scramble to put dinner together, start the bedtime routine, and then, in the hopes of training my young son to sleep through the night, sit in agony listening to him cry. My husband would tell me to leave the house — take a walk, go see a friend. But I felt paralyzed, the idea of stepping outside into the cold, dark night seemed unmanageable.
Self-care fell by the wayside. In an attempt to keep up with a full-time job, a new infant, and the unique demands that accompany being a rabbi’s wife, stepping out to get a manicure seemed an untenable luxury of the past. Life was moving one hundred miles an hour, and I was hanging on for dear life, hoping strict routine would somehow tether me to sanity.
I drove at a breakneck pace for a long time. But at the end of a year, I started to slow. The engine light turned on, the gas meter started to glare red.
I started coming home every day with migraines. I was getting sick — colds, viruses, and stomach bugs — more frequently than ever in the past. My body began to wave the white flag before my mind was willing to acknowledge the inevitable.
I am not far from my first year of motherhood, a year that, under the best conditions, is filled with spiraling anxieties, fears, and raw vulnerability. My first year of motherhood brought me to the brink and gave me a harsh lesson in accepting my own limitations. I learned that I am not infallible, no matter how much I want to believe it. I learned that ‘doing it all’ was never a real option, but only a glamorous mirage. I learned that taking care of yourself — nurturing your mind, body, and soul — is not and can never be dispensable.
Quite the opposite: self-care is a precondition for the care of others. The more I overextended to address every need of my son, the more I turned in on myself, and grew resentful towards those closest to me. “Why am I so miserable?” I would wonder on the crowded subway home from work, the list of evening to-dos and worries already parading through my mind. Why do I feel so terribly alone? Why is there no one here to take care of me?
Some are privileged to have a strong support system who can help ease life transitions. But no matter your support system — or lack-there-of — adulthood, and parenthood have a way of teaching you how to parent yourself.
If you need kindness and affirmation, I learned, you can seek it externally, with spotty and unpredictable results. Or you can foster affirmation from within, and allow self-love to become your bedrock. If you need someone to tell you ‘It’s going to be ok’ when the world is spinning, practice self-soothing and empathetic self-talk. If your first response is to run from anger, open the door, and let it sit with you for a little while. Allow yourself to feel, express, emote. Teach yourself what you need, so you can find repose and quiet in your own company, rather than unrest, dissatisfaction and self-loathing.
After a year of self-neglect, I am embarking on a new beginning, with a clear new goal: to take care of myself; to love myself; to treat myself kindly.
I don’t just mean hitting the gym (though that would be nice). I mean working to trust my partner as an equal parent, so I can leave the house when the baby is crying. I mean speaking kindly to myself when something goes wrong, rather than blaming and reprimanding myself for the outcome. I mean seeking new opportunities that intrigue and challenge me (like The Layers Project Magazine). Treating myself to a healthy lunch; making time to reach out to an old friend; paying that $30 for a massage; learning to accept that those last 10 pounds may never go away, and smiling at my reflection anyway.
This past week, my friend from California came in for a visit. Together, we went to a local salon to get manicures. It was my first manicure since directly after I’d given birth to my son.
My nails were rough and uneven. My nails were the first line of defense against my anxiety, and they had not fared well. I was embarrassed to sit down in the chair and display my weathered, soap-dish roughened hands for examination — they were not the sleek, soft hands, with smooth oval nail beds, that I imagined I should have.
Still, I sat down all the same and placed my fingers in the bowl of warm water, wrists limp. I breathed into the luxury of the moment — a glass of fruit-infused water by my side, my friend sitting next to me, my handbag neatly at my feet — and allowed myself to savor the moment.