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It’s hard to read any women-marketed websites without seeing the words, “self-care” sprinkled across multiple headlines and advertising, or crammed among social media hashtags. You often see these two words in ads and articles featuring images of  toned, slim, (usually white) women, mid-yoga-pose; or a perfectly staged cup of tea next to an expensive looking candle. Today’s industry of self-care seems to have led to a near cult-like belief that the act of engaging in it will relieve us of any physical, emotional, or spiritual pains. But what happens when self-care isn’t the miracle cure-all, but in fact, is damaging to our health? What if, as I recently experienced, trying to practice self-care makes us feel worse than before?

I’d undergone what should have been a straightforward surgery, that resulted in some major medical complications requiring a couple weeks of recovery. The recovery entailed a lot of laying low, very limited physical activity, lots of popping painkillers, and a lot of sleeping. “Pamper yourself,” the ER recovery nurse had said, as I was sent on my way home. “Do whatever it takes to feel good, OK?” All I could think about was the opportunity I’d have to catch up on the six years of sleep I’d lost since having kids. As a working mother of two very “spirited” boys, the idea of resting and sitting on my ass for a week or two sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

When loved ones called to check on me, I’d trot out all the gory details that led me to the operating table twice in an 8-hour-period (fun!), and tell them about the pain I was currently experiencing from the surgery site itself. Then I’d get to what was really hurting me — on a more emotional level: Feeling guilty about not being able to play with my kids while I was recovering, and feeling guilty for not being able to work. To this, people would almost all say, “But you just had surgery! You should be taking care of yourself!” And then that would often be followed by orders to, “Rest! Pamper! Practice self-care!”

I decided to give in and take their advice, plus that of literally every health and beauty Influencer on the ‘Gram. Because what better time to do all those ubiquitously listed self-care type things than when you’re stuck inside, unable to care for your own children, and unable to work? In the first week that I could barely move without wincing in pain, I tried to busy myself in a never-ending loop of lovely-sounding activities: napping, spending time with my dog, trying a variety of face masks, binging on magazines, watching daytime TV, and dipping my toes in meditation apps.

As a working mother of two very “spirited” boys, the idea of resting and sitting on my ass for a week or two sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

As my many days of recovery wore on, and trips to the doctor multiplied, my mood worsened. Things weren’t healing as they should have been, and every procedure I endured at my doctor’s visits felt like the most painful thing I’d ever experienced, until the next procedure would top that one. It seemed that no matter what I did, my body was rebelling against me.

I still was not able to fully participate in the everyday care of my boys. I couldn’t pick them up from school, or take them to any classes, I couldn’t rough house, I couldn’t do their bath-time. The painkillers I was on made it near-impossible to concentrate on work long enough to produce anything meaningful. (In an act of self-care, I wrote to all my editors and pushed my deadlines out.) I’d wake from a Percocet-induced nap to the joyful sounds of my kids coming home from school, and see that somehow it was already dark outside – a marker of the day I’d spent selfishly succumbing to and caring for a body that seemed to refuse to heal. Still, I remained hopeful that meditation and aggressive use of Matcha tea (the most “self caring” of teas, in my opinion) would get me through the doldrums I was feeling.

I felt like I was losing my “self” in all that self-care. I wasn’t a mom. I wasn’t a professional writer. I was a bandaged, patchwork, couch potato in a twelve-dollar facemask and I was depressed. “Screw self-care,” I remember thinking to myself. “I just want to get back to my goddamn regular life.“ And as fun as it had sounded in theory to spend most of my day taking care of my body and having the opportunity for quiet and an excuse to not have to go anywhere or take care of anyone, I did not want any of it. I decided that, in the end, self-care just wasn’t for me. And for a long while, I carried around the idea that I wasn’t “the self-care type”. Even the two words themselves made me roll my eyes whenever I heard or read them.

I would have been better served to practice accepting where I was in life at that moment in time – and that place was “recovery”.

What I realize now, many months later, is that there actually can be room for self-care in my life, if I change how I look at and define it. Self-care can have a far wider-ranging definition than a lot of the “lady” sites (whose tones are largely influenced by the way products and brands market to women) typically attribute to it. Self-care can mean pampering, meditation, yoga, or coffee-dates with girlfriends, sure. But it can also be defined as doing whatever the hell you need to do so you feel like the best version of YOU, and in order to feel good and whole.

When I was going through recovery from my surgery, the self-care that may have worked better for me probably would have been to work on accepting that life was out of my control at that time. Despite my desire to be a “Mother” and “Professional”, I simply could not embody either of those roles while I was trying to heal. The pampering and indulging types of self-care I was engaging in were escapist at best, and frustrated me every time I came back to reality. I would have been better served to practice accepting where I was in life at that moment in time – and that place was “recovery”.  

If I had really been able to have been kind and generous to myself during that period, I would have allowed myself to see that being unable to participate in my life in my usual ways did not make me less of a mother or less of a writer. To have given myself permission to hold onto my identity – to have freed myself of all that guilt during that time– now that would have been the ultimate act of self-care.

Alexis Barad-Cutler is a heymama contributor, freelance writer, content creator and published children’s book author living in Brooklyn Heights. Her (often irreverent) writing is regularly featured on sites such as Well Rounded, Romper, and Fatherly – as well as other sites that cater to the parenting set. To read more from Alexis, click here

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