Like many moms, each morning, I wake up before my family to get some work done. Each evening, I stay up long after they are asleep to finish what I couldn’t sneak in between after school snack time and bath night. By the time I trip up the stairs and fall into bed, I’ve been up for almost 20 hours, walking a tight rope suspended between my life as a stay-at-home mom and a writer with deadlines looming. The baby is still awake but he’s content to play in his crib as I lay in bed. My other two children are cashed out in their bedroom. If I go to sleep now, I will get four — maybe five — broken hours of sleep before I peel myself from between the sheets and start all over again.
A bath sounds nice, incredible really, but it won’t be more than an hour before the baby needs his midnight snack and I’m on the menu. I try to let myself drift off but instead my brain starts to cycle through all the things I didn’t get done today. The eye doctor appointment I didn’t make. The kitchen floor, un-mopped and sticky with juice. The long division worksheet sitting on the kitchen counter, waiting to be checked. I could cycle through the to-dos all night and still not make it through the ever-growing stack on my plate. On airplanes, they tell you that in the event of an emergency, you should put on your own oxygen mask before tending to your kids’, but putting my own mask on first is just another thing I always seem to fail to do. I’m too exhausted to take care of one more thing, even if that thing is a person and that person is me.
Every day I’m bombarded with reminders to keep my own happiness in mind. Treat yo self. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Headlines telling me my sanity is on the line if I don’t take a break, don’t spring for a $6 latte, or slip away for kid-free time when I can. And yet it almost feels like a mean joke, as the other side of that news ticker tape reminds me I’m a bad mom if I put my kids’ water bottles through the dishwasher or that I could get arrested if I leave them in the car while I run into the gas station for 20 seconds. The result is a mental game of tennis that has my brain bouncing back and forth inside my skull, leaving in its wake a migraine and a sense of inevitable defeat.
As I see it, the idea that self-care will save us is another way for modern society to gaslight moms who already carry incredible mental and emotional burdens. Not only do we take care of our children (who aren’t allowed to be out of our sight unless they are asleep), our homes, our jobs, and most of the time our partners, but we also have to respond to the constant reminder that our own health and happiness should be added to the top of an already precarious pile.
Personally, not participating in the myth of self-care is the only self-care I can afford to do. Turns out a hot bath won’t save me and neither will a cupcake; not even a month away in Aruba with unlimited adult beverages and no one standing in the bathroom doorway asking me life big questions while I try to get my underwear off before I pee my pants. This myth of self-care creates an illusion that takes away from the reality that most American families, especially those with children, don’t have enough.
What I really need is healthcare I can afford to use so my special needs kids can get the services they require to succeed in this world. I need a village of people who I can call when things go south at 3am and I need someone to sit with the baby while my husband takes a sick kid to the ER and I steam-clean puke out of the carpet. I need to know my children won’t be used as a target in a domestic terrorist’s sick game as they try to learn their ABCs. I need everyone to stop telling me that I am the “president” of school lunches, bedtimes, play dates, laundry, bill-paying, money-making — the president of everything.
Modern moms need a lot of things but those things are not a bottomless mimosa brunch or glitter bath bombs or mani-pedis. We need a society that stops placing every single ball in our court. We need supportive, non-judgemental communities that see how hard we are trying and lift us up when we are too exhausted to do that for ourselves.
And we need some peace. Real peace, inner peace, knowing that we aren’t doing all of this alone.