The idea of self-care sounds, well, selfish. And to be selfish is bad.
At least that’s what we’ve been taught since we were toddlers. We were told to share even when we didn’t want to and to apologize whether or not we felt it. We, as women especially, are told by our parents, caregivers, teachers, and society to hold our tears, lower our voices, and take one for the team. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves becomes more and more ingrained as we get older. To love someone is to put their needs above your own. We are taught, either directly or indirectly, to sacrifice in all the roles we play: wife, partner, mother, colleague, friend, daughter.
All my life as a Palestinian-American I was taught to put others before myself. It is a good lesson. It is a noble endeavor—and yet it can go too far. There never seems to be a limit. Even when I want to say no, I am embarrassed and feel compelled to say yes. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There have been so many times over the years that I’ve stayed up all night preparing food for a dinner party, the whole time berating myself. Or the countless times a friend has called to ask me to visit or to go out or to let their kids come over, and I just said yes. Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught by my parents. The culture my father and grandparents brought with them from Palestine was very clear: people come first.
I grew up in a house that seemed like it had a revolving door. We always had guests over. Relatives would stop by for coffee and stay for hours. We’d serve a set menu of “courses” that we all knew by heart. From the moment guests entered the house, we all took our positions. Our parents would sit with them in the living room, and me and my sisters would head to kitchen to start making tea. Tea was served with biscuits, followed by fruit, followed by American coffee with an assortment of cakes, followed by mixed nuts and water or more tea. Sometimes visits went into overtime, and we’d find ourselves pacing the kitchen asking, “What else can we serve?” Last thing was always Arabic coffee. When you served Arabic coffee, it meant the visit was over.
Luckily, there were five of us, so there was always someone to help or cover for whoever needed to study or work. But someone had to cover that kitchen. Now that my mother had teenage daughters, she was free to work and socialize, and we took over the household duties. But she never took time for herself. My mother worked full-time. She commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every day on the subway. But she never came home and locked herself in a room for some quiet time. She never took a Saturday spa day. When we shopped for clothes, she never bought anything for herself. Or if she did, she left herself for last.
It’s a common story. Most women can identify with this. Once I became a mother, I fell into the same pattern. My husband worked, and I stayed home with the kids. I breastfed and we practiced attachment parenting. My five kids are all two years apart. I was stuck in a cycle of breastfeeding, weaning, and potty training. My entire day was filled with children, housework, and cooking. If friends came over, it meant more of the same. It wasn’t that I was unhappy—just unfulfilled.
Again, it’s not a new story. Many women can relate to this. In my case it was babies and cultural obligations. To someone else, it’s a demanding boss or husband, an overwhelming friend or sibling. We all have stresses in our lives. But we don’t know what to do about them. We know we need to take better care of ourselves physically; we diet or go to the gym. But we don’t take time for ourselves emotionally or mentally. We don’t prioritize ourselves.
Self-care is literally defined as anything you do to care for yourself. It can be anything: a walk, a deep breath, a quiet moment of reflection, or a full-on spa day. And yet very few of us take the time. The problem isn’t just the physical, it’s the mental. Whenever I did get a chance to have alone time, I’d spend most of the time watching the clock or thinking about how the kids were doing.
Until recently. Once my youngest started going to school, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I started taking yoga, and it was the first step toward finding my center. After every class, there would be a kind of prayer to remind us to set our intentions for the day, to be mindful and gentle with ourselves. Just those simple reminders resonated with me. I felt lighter. I felt hopeful and empowered to take on the day. But then I’d leave and go back to reality and get bogged down in the routines of the day.
Then I was invited to join a women’s circle by my yoga instructor. It was a workshop of sorts for women to discuss the idea of courage. I am not one to try new things, but I was intrigued. When I entered the room, it felt like the first day of school. Everyone was just looking around at each other, unsure of what to say or do. We sat in a circle and began to introduce ourselves, and as we did, the anxiety began to fall away. It became clear that we were all looking for support in some way. We all wanted to feel like we were not alone. Because the reality is, we all feel like we are. We buy into the lie that we need to do everything. We are afraid and ashamed to ask for help. The more we feel the need to accomplish on our own, the more we tend to neglect our own needs.
The purpose of this women’s circle was to learn to be our most authentic selves—to break out of living by habit, the tendency to just go through the motions, and truly listen to our needs. Emotional distress tends to settle in our bodies in various ways; we feel anxiety in the pits of our stomachs or our necks and shoulders ache from the burden. But what if we could let go of our emotions instead of holding on to them? Emotions are just emotions, not good or bad, and they only need ninety secondsto course through the body. Ninety seconds! Allow yourself to feel it, and then poof! It’s gone. This idea changed my life. Before, I would get angry with my kids for something which would lead to me ranting about how they don’t appreciate me or how they never listen. But after learning this ninety-second gem, I began to give myself a moment to breathe and then tackle the problem. I taught it to my older kids, too. It’s a work in progress, but it was a tangible tool I could remind myself to use.
I was not living my best life. The most helpful part of being in the women’s circle was realizing that I was preventing myself from feeling fulfilled. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of rejection. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about our travels through the Middle East or raising children, but I wouldn’t write anything down. Forget submitting, I wouldn’t even put pen to paper! But in the circle, I realized so much of that fear didn’t come from anything real. I had never had anyone read my writing and say, “This is crap! Never do this again!’ It was all in my head, as so many fears tend to be. My wonderful coach asked me to go back to my earliest memory when I felt my voice was silenced, and I realized that while I was never told not to write, I was also never encouraged to. Culturally, while I was growing up, girls weren’t told to follow their dreams. We were told to get married, start a family, and then follow your dreams if your husband was okay with it. I internalized those messages. My writing became a dream just out of reach. I encourage you, dear readers, to sit in a quiet place and really think about what’s holding you back. What’s keeping you from following your dreams? Or simply taking an hour for yourself?
When an opportunity for an open call for writers came up, I decided to do it. Whether or not it was accepted, I was determined to get over the fear. Thankfully, instead of all the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t, I finally felt like I could. So I did. And I was successful! My writing was accepted and liked. What a feeling to hear someone has read your stuff and liked it. With that newfound confidence and validation, I started going after new opportunities.
Not everyone will be able to join a women’s circle or have a coach, but we can all help ourselves. We can all take time from our days to take a deep breath. We are worth the time. This may be our biggest challenge as women yet. But healing ourselves will heal those around us. My kids have seen me realize my dreams, and it has inspired them to do the same. Holding ourselves back does not help anyone. Forcing ourselves to do for others when it is draining us only creates bitterness. It is not selfish to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is imperative.
The safety instructions on the airplanes advise that in the case of loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will appear: “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”
For years, I thought, that’s so stupid. Of course I’d save my child first.
But how can I help him if I can’t breathe?