We have all heard the analogies, "Put on your own oxygen mask first before you help others," and "You cannot pour from an empty cup." I've never related to them much, because while they give me permission to take care of myself, it never feels instinctual to do so, and the fear of letting others down often overrides my desire to tend to my own needs. However, given some recent occurrences in the "Schwartz Home," I've been thinking it is time to reconsider my perspective on self-care.
It wasn't until recently that I realized I reached a new, all-time low. I began crying during my 6-year-old's parent-teacher conference. Just like that. It wasn't even five minutes into our Zoom meeting, and I found myself sobbing at the mere mention of my daughter reading at a Level C when "they" would expect her to be at a Level F. I'm not even sure I fully understood what that meant. I'm not even sure who "they" are. All I knew was the tears streaming down my face were causing her teacher to look worried, and my husband was staring at me like I had three heads!
For those of you whom I've never met before, I am an Early Childhood Social Worker. I spend my days reassuring parents that all children develop at their own pace, and that what's most critical in the early years is supporting their social-emotional skills; particularly their ability to label and express emotions, their capacity to navigate peer relationships and conflict, and their development of empathy. I know that reading and math will come in due time. So why had I broken down so badly at the most inopportune time and why couldn't I take my own advice around my daughter's development?
It didn't take long for me to spiral down a long road of "if-only's." If only I spent more time reading to her every day. If only I worked with her and practiced her sight words more often. It was about me and the guilt I was feeling. I was beating myself up about not being the perfect mother. Not living up to the Super Mom persona I expected of myself. Not cutting myself any slack, even knowing that I am managing a full-time job and three children--all in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Something was about to give, and I couldn't let it be my sanity!
Was my breakdown during conferences a sign that I wasn't practicing putting my own oxygen mask on first? Should I be exploring self-care in a more meaningful way? Many moms I have spoken to about self-care hear those words and think about manicures, lattes, yoga, and massages. After all, it's a billion-dollar industry.
But I couldn't kick the feeling that I wasn't being fair to myself. That self-care also involves the messages we send ourselves, and mine were all negative: "I am not doing a good enough job." "I am letting my daughter down." "I am not doing enough to support her reading skills." So, I asked myself, "Would I allow my daughter to talk to herself this way? Would I let her treat herself so unkindly?" The answers were a resounding NO! This was a pivotal moment for me.
While establishing clearer boundaries between work and home, saying "no" more often to others, taking time-outs for myself, and meditating to quiet the many outside distractions are all still self-care practices I embrace, I am tending to myself differently these days. I am listening to myself better, and when I hear my inner voice being negative, I try to reframe it the way I would if my daughter asked me for advice. I am trying to bring awareness to my internal thoughts and be more cognizant of my mindset.
As I embrace a more positive perspective, I realize it takes practice. I realize I am making a choice every day, and I will continue to fight this internal battle because my children deserve a role model who they can respect and who respects themselves.
JCC Chicago is a partner with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community.
Rachel Schwartz, LCSW, is the Director of Social Services for Early Childhood at JCC Chicago.