Tracy grapples with self-care and with the concept of self-care

We hear a lot about self-care. Sam sent me a link yesterday to “This Is What ‘Self-Care’ Really Means Because It’s not All Salt Baths and Chocolate Cake.” And Fieldpoppy wrote a beautiful post not too long ago, “Listen to your body…when it whispers,” that opened with “why does it all feel so HARD right now?” In the frazzled and frenetic pace of life, simple things like sleep, eating right, and getting the workouts in can fall to the side.

I blogged about this very thing less than a year ago in “On over-commitment, re-commitment, and self-care.” There I said:

I’m a person who strives for balance but finds it elusive.  When I am so over-committed with projects and tasks, things that will fade from memory as they get completed and then replaced by the next set of projects and tasks that will also one day get completed and fade from memory nudge out self care.  Like, besides not sleeping, not swimming, and working too much, I’ve also had cereal for dinner more times in the past four months than I have since…ever.

The idea that self care is treating yourself as kindly as you would treat others has resonance for me. I would never tell a friend: You cannot go swimming! You must work more! And here, have a bowl of cereal for dinner while you’re at it. And by the way, you’re not allowed to go to bed until you can’t keep your eyes open any longer.

In “This is What ‘Self-Care’ Really Means,” Brianne West says:

If you find yourself having to regularly indulge in consumer self-care, it’s because you are disconnected from actual self-care, which has very little to do with “treating yourself” and a whole lot do with parenting yourself and making choices for your long-term wellness.

It is no longer using your hectic and unreasonable life as justification for self-sabotage in the form of liquor and procrastination. It is learning how to stop trying to “fix yourself” and start trying to take care of yourself…

And in “Listen to your body…when it whispers,” Fieldpoppy says:

Right now, I’m giving myself permission to do things that aren’t running and pushing myself hard, finding different ways to move, being open to things that feel like mystery.

This is all consistent with my perennial “do less” theme. If there is one thing that constitutes self-care in my view, that sort of encapsulates where I consistently go wrong, it’s in over-committing. Okay. We get that. Lots of us can relate.

And yet, I almost always cringe when I hear the words “self-care.” It’s not because I don’t think it matters. The other day in my “Feminism across Borders” class we were talking about migrant domestic workers. One of the themes in my course is the way global systems, especially the economic system, mean that people’s circumstances all over the work stand in relation. In Canada we have special government programs to enable migrant domestic workers to enter the country (more or less as indentured workers) because “we” recognize that their labour is needed. If Canadian women are to pursue careers then they need someone to pick up that slack. So often then, in the case of the migrant workers from different parts of the world, it’s on their backs. They leave their children behind to look after ours.  So we can lead harried and over-committed lives.

Now I’m not saying that every Canadian career woman has a migrant domestic worker doing her care labour and housework. My main point is that “self-care” is a pretty luxurious concept. I’ve written about that before too. See “Self-Care: A luxury and a privilege that lots of people still don’t get enough of.” I agree with Brianne West’s point that it’s not all about salt baths and chocolate cake.

Nashwa Khan writes about “Self-Care and Justice for All?” where she also points out that the consumer model of self-care binds us to others across the globe and at home, others for whom the very notion of “self-care” is not a live option:

I do not have time for self-care because financial survival trumps self-care. My self-care is making a reciprocal effort to give back to my community or making sure everyone is fed in a space. It would feel selfish for me to indulge in a capitalist shopping trip and label it as self-care versus what it actually is, myself as a person in the West buying clothing that is likely unethically made. These fleeting feel-good moments, masked as necessary care reiterate the dominant systems that are already at play. Instead of acknowledging our roles in these oppressive systems, we lie to ourselves by naming practices like shopping for clothes made by exploited people as “self-care.” In this consumerist act we buy into more than capitalism: when we label it self-care we render it ethical, we believe that it is  buying into a greater good. Therefore, we buy redemption beyond engaging in capitalism, we buy into the belief that we are healing ourselves and are still engaged in social movements.

The upshot? I continue to struggle with self-care on two levels. Level one: I often don’t do enough of it. I feel this regularly but less than I used to because, as Fieldpoppy urged, I’m more likely to listen to the whisper.

Level two: I recognize it as a concept that invokes privilege and the luxury of choice. I can choose to be frazzled. Or I can choose to slow down. Does the indentured domestic worker who is not free to leave her sponsored employment have the same choices as I do? Does the garment maker who works in the factory where I might buy the clothes that serve as “consumer therapy” because “I deserve it” (says who?) have the choice to opt for self-care if she likes?

This is not: “oh it’s so hard to be privileged.” I’m not endorsing or even venturing into the territory of the fragility of the privileged here. Many people experience different combinations of privilege and disadvantage. It’s complex. And we are all interconnected. Having it tough in one area doesn’t give a free pass over complicity in other areas. But it also doesn’t negate that there are real issues and difficulties.

And that’s why I like the central message of Brianne West’s piece. For those who have the option to make choices, make better choices.  The kind that, as she says, are “for your longterm wellness.” This doesn’t mean that those of us who have the luxury of being able to make such choices aren’t fortunate indeed. But it does mean that we can use our privilege of choice in ways that minimize our complicity in global systems of exploitation and structural injustice. I don’t have to indulge in self-care on the backs of exploited others.

9 thoughts on “Tracy grapples with self-care and with the concept of self-care

  1. I think, for me, it’s the term I object to more than anything else. Like “adulting” it’s not that I don’t do it. Rather, it’s that is never call it that. Ever. I pay bills, I make appointments, etc but I don’t “adult.” I mean in that sense I’ve been an “adult” since I was 10. Likewise, I try to eat well and get enough sleep, hop in the hot tub if I’m stressed. But I don’t call that “self care.” I associate the language of self care with mani-pedis and the mall. Also wine. Ugh. If I conceptualize these activities at all other than as “taking care of myself” it’s that I think of them in terms of taking care of me so I can take care of others. Put your own mask on first, etc. I appreciate the different spin you’ve put on it here. I know that for me family obligations keep me from overwork and also force me to take care of myself and I recognize that motivation will have to change. If I didn’t have little kids earlier in my career I’d have to have developed different habits to keep me from working in the evenings. Interesting stuff.

  2. I consider self care all the little things I choose to do to make my life slower and gentler. Saying no to requests is self care. Going to bed on time is self care. Taking my medication is self care. Wearing mittens in the cold is self care.
    Massages and pedicures are nice distractions. They are not self care.

    As an aside. I have a live in caregiver. My current nanny would bristle at the suggestion she is an indentured servant. She has lived with us for 10 years. She is from the Philippines, but has become a permanent resident. She has no children, but is supporting her extended family in the Philippines. Without her support her nieces and nephews would not be in school.
    Before she came here to Canada she worked in Hong Kong, as most people who come under the old live in caregiver program did. They worked 6 days a well, 24 hours a day there. Here she was paid for 44 hours a week, at minimum wage, with room and board included.

    We had another nanny before that. After her 4 years of work with us, during which all her money went back to her family, her husband and kids Immigrated to Canada. She had worked years in Hong Kong with no prospect of that. One of her daughters is now a dental hygenist. Her husband had a stroke a few years back and was well cared for in Canada. He probably would have died in the Philippines.
    This program has provided untold value for many of my friends who employ caregivers, as well as the caregivers who have an opportunity to make a better life for their family.

    Having full time live in help does give me way more time to take care of myself when I am not at work. I can’t imagine any other way…


    1. Thanks, Ann. I like your list of what counts as self care.

      I understand that many would not consider their situation as indenture. And once they have permanent residency they obviously are not. But the structure of the Canadian system makes new arrivals dependent on being with the same sponsor family for two years before they can apply for permanent residency. And they must apply within four years of arriving. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for moving around. And Canada’s system is the best in the world because it can lead to permanent residency and has a reasonably good minimum wage. And the fact that there is this system is not a function of trying to benefit women from elsewhere with opportunities. It is purely a function of the recognition of a need among more affluent Canadian families to hire foreign workers to fulfill domestic and care duties because there are not enough Canadian citizens willing or available. It is an issue of global gender justice that generates a care drain in other parts of the world. That’s just a fact, even if there are some happy endings.

      1. It has changed, but the live in caregiver program did not require the caregivers to stay with the same family. They could change employers, but needed to get a new work permit. It was not the best system, as they would be unemployed between if they quit one job.
        Our current nanny fit in this category.
        And we have had a number others live with us between jobs.

        The new program no longer requires that they live in. And is much faster to permanent residency. I agree that the program has flaws, but remittances are large part of the GDP in countries where these worker come from.

        Most of the women I know left their children in the care of fathers who didn’t work to begin with.

        Yes. The program benefits working families in areas lacking child care.

        I always think these workers are very brave to come thousands of miles to live with strangers….

  3. Thanks for this, Tracy – great post.

    I’ve recently moved house, as you know, to an area of southern Ontario that is immensely rich in natural resources – as in, resources that let humans be out in nature, gently. The Bruce Trail and Niagara Escarpment run through my city, just blocks from my house. The Dundas Valley and Cootes Paradise are full of carefully maintained nature trails.

    I’ve taken recently to making time for walks throughout my new city, on trails and on the streets. I love the trail walks. They let my dog explore without having to be leashed, and they let me pay attention, as we wander, to things I normally don’t see: turtles, toads, soil erosion, the whole thing. I appreciate the way this gift from the city of Hamilton to its citizens lets us take stock of what we have, collectively, and also what we are very much at risk of losing.


  4. As a child, I did wonder why my mother would take a nap often for 1-2 hrs. before supper. My father went to work in restaurant from 3:00 pm and didn’t get home until 1:00 pm.

    Then I realized later, being a stay at home parent and housewife for 6 children, was tiring..even rhough she asked us to help on simple tasks. It was her “self-care” and absolutely justified.

    If it doesn’t cost a person much money for “self care”, the person isn’t endangering others, and helps for their health, physically and mentally, by all means…

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