A revealing fact about my husband is that in the midst of family chaos, he never fails to make himself a cup of coffee. Give him a school morning in which we have all overslept, or hand him the tenuous minutes before breakfast when only a bowl of oatmeal stands between us and a hangry preschooler. In each of these moments — and in any variation in between — my wonderful, darling husband will fire up the espresso machine and focus on caffeinating.
In our eight years of parenthood, my husband has shouldered his share of care-giving. He has soothed newborns in the dead of night, washed breast pump parts, whipped up Halloween costumes, baked birthday cakes, packed lunches, and learned to wield a curling iron with impressive deftness. When it comes to raising our daughters, my husband is a partner in the truest sense. But somehow, he has never lost sight of taking care of himself while also taking care of our children. The same cannot be said about me.
Consider this: By 7:00 each morning, my husband is rounding out his run on the basement treadmill. Meanwhile two floors up, I’m wedging my 3-year-old’s foot from my ribcage, her body slung across mine in her sleep. While this sweet man of mine showers and dresses for the day, I haul children from bed to bathroom, brushing little teeth and wrangling the youngest into the day’s clothes. As the clock ticks toward go-time, I field a litany of questions, intercept swats between sisters, and fetch all the little things that need frantic fetching. Like every mother around the world, I am a blur of activity — and none of it is focused on me.
Somewhere in motherhood, I have adopted the belief that “my” time comes after everyone else’s. While I coax everyone out the door each morning, I put every need I have as a human being on hold. I don’t get dressed. I don’t eat breakfast. Hell, I don’t even pee until my children are well on their way to school. I could be seconds away from a toddler-style accident right there on the kitchen floor and still I’d hunt down a missing sock if called upon to do so.
Of course, I’m not the only mother to shuffle herself back to the end of the line. The truth is, so many of us prioritize our families over ourselves. It’s an ideology we’ve been fed since the beginning of time: the mother as the selfless martyr. And I have to wonder, why are we still doing this? Why, in the age of capable partners, are we treating our needs like they matter less than everyone else’s? Is it because it’s what our mothers did, and their mothers before them? If that’s the case, I’d say it’s our responsibility, our duty to the next generation, to stop the cycle once and for all and quit pretending to be robots. We have needs, basic and otherwise, and they are just as real and important as anyone else’s.
This is what the “self-care” industry misses. So often, we’re subjected to lengthy think pieces on the importance of “filling our own cups” or putting on our own “oxygen masks” first. We’re given an endless list of ways to tend to ourselves, most of which cost money and time we don’t have. All of this when the proper prescription could be far less sophisticated and notably less lucrative: Just take care of your needs as they arise, even if doing so results in a little one’s whining. In other words, maybe all we need to do to take care of ourselves is act more like dads. We don’t need bubble baths and luxurious face masks, we need the constant reminder to put ourselves first in little ways that actually matter — like using the bathroom when nature calls.
So what does this mean, that we abandon all sense of duty in favor of showering and changing clothes? Well, kind of. If you’re parenting solo, it may mean slowly conditioning your kids to wait. If you have a partner, it’s time to lean on them, even if it means watching them flail and fail from time to time. There is nothing in our genetic makeup as moms that makes us innately better suited for caregiving. Every bit of it is a learned skill. Take my husband’s hair-styling, for instance.
When my oldest was 3 years old, and then again at 4, I flew across the country for work several times. By that point, the kid had good hair — long and golden, but prone to knots and tangles. For five days at a time, my husband would need to wash, comb, and style it all on his own. He’s no dummy and of course he figured it out, even if my daughter looked a bit like Albert Einstein in the beginning. Now, many years in and two heads of hair later, my husband can ace a center-part like no other.
The point of all of this, of course, is that if we want to move the needle; if we want to actually take charge of taking care of ourselves, we have to be willing to cede some control. Even if it means watching our kids move about the world with hair that sticks up in some places and not in others. Even if it means gritting our teeth against the impatient whines of the little ones we love. We have to be willing to take a cue from one another and embrace good change at an incremental level. And it might just be as simple as starting with what we tell our potty-training toddlers: When you have to pee, just go to the f*@#ing bathroom.
Lizzie Duszynski-Goodman is a writer and editor living in the Midwest with her husband and two young children. Her work explores the intersection of mental health and parenting and has appeared in Forbes Health, The Everymom, Cubby, and other publications. She is the editorial director at Mother Untitled.