I’m up relatively early this morning and I am kind of feeling like I could write something for the first time in a long while. So, here I am. I have been quiet on the blog for a while. Lots of Big Things happening in the work and life departments, which mean lots of hours between 1am and 4am trying to get my brain to be quiet enough to let me go back to sleep and lots of mornings which see me stumbling into the work day tired, sluggish and just over it all. I’ve been reading quite a bit recently, in light of all of this, about self-care and all the different meanings ascribed to this notion. I don’t feel, most days, like I am doing a very good job taking care of anyone, never mind myself, but I am aware that if I don’t start trying to look after myself a bit more consciously, things are unlikely to get much better any time soon in this regard. I have been musing about what self-care is, what it could be, and what I can do about that for myself. I think, pandemic notwithstanding, that most of us could probably benefit from more time and energy spent on ourselves, that we could all learn to take better care of us.
Self-care is understood in a range of literatures to encompass physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and in in this article, the author addresses each of these areas, arguing that taking care of ourselves in all five areas is key to developing resilience and the ability to cope with both everyday life stressors and more acute stress (like a harsh set of comments from a supervisor, or a meeting that goes badly). If we’re not sleeping, we’re not coping. But, to be able to sleep, we need to find ways to calm our minds, we need to exercise (even just a little bit), we need to eat decent food and take in the calories our bodies need. I am not good at any of these things right now. I am drinking too much coffee and eating sporadic and not always very nutritious meals (apart from dinner, mostly because I don’t only have to feed myself). My brain is always going and because I am tired, meditation is super-hard, and because I am tired, I can’t be bothered to cook oats if there’s a cereal bar and a banana that require no cooking, and because I am tired, I don’t want to go to Pilates or walk my doglet. For me, right now, part of my self-care is making myself take a walk even if it’s a short one; it’s boiling two eggs instead of a bowl of cornflakes or a cereal bar; it’s taking my thyroid and iron tablets before I drink my coffee so that my body actually absorbs them (and not skipping them altogether); it’s going to bed before 10.30pm, so that I can get some proper sleep in before the inevitable brain circus at 3am. And it is hard. I have to consciously make myself take care of myself.
This is something else I have been reading about in regard to self-care: it’s not always pleasurable or easy, and it’s not necessarily about beauty products, mani-pedis and spa day (although, don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE a massage and a facial right now, and so would my tired skin). In this article, the author argues that when we persistently link self-care to massages, spa days, shopping for a new outfit or taking time away from our daily lives we frame self-care as indulgence and as a luxury. Not only do we have to spend a lot of money we may not have on this version of self-care, we also locate this care externally, in things. Rather, as several more critical pieces on self-care argue, we need to start internally, with ourselves, and we need to understand that self-care is necessary, not indulgent, and everyday more often than involving any form of luxury. Self-care often takes discipline and it is not always glamorous or pretty. Over the years, for me, self-care has looked like going to Pilates even when I want to stay in bed, going to therapy even when I do not feel like talking to my therapist, taking my pills when I don’t want to, going to the doctor to get the pills in the first place, closing the laptop and saying ‘no’ to work because I actually know I need to rest (even though the work never does). And this takes work – some days not so much, some days a great deal. Self-care is about working out what “you need to do to thrive” and not just survive, and then doing that as consistently and consciously as you can.
This reading led me to a more radical understanding of self-care, one written about by Audre Lorde when she was being treated for breast cancer. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde wrote about being a black woman, a poet and a lesbian, having a single mastectomy and refusing a prosthetic breast. She wrote about the kinds of advocacy she engaged in to defend her decisions against well-meaning others, against the medical establishment, against society – a society that did not care for her in the ways that she chose to care for herself. In this article, the author makes a thoughtful link between us and society: if society does not care for us, then we need to choose to care for ourselves, and these acts can be radical, like choosing to work a 40 hour week and taking the weekend off; choosing not to answer email or be available for work in the evenings; choosing to take your vacation time and leave your phone and email and work at home; choosing not to take on extra projects because it’s expected of you or its what everyone else is doing; choosing to say ‘no’ when no is the best choice for *you*. In an academic – and more general – work culture that has made a virtue out of being available to everyone all the time, that equates success with loads of research papers and grants and memberships and being ‘on’ all the time, that valorises living to work instead of working to live, many of us struggle to keep up. Research has already shown that working mothers’ research “productivity” declined significantly during the first year of the covid pandemic (if productivity is understood as papers published and grants applied for and not as home-schooling their kids and keeping their families safe and alive). In this culture of over-work, then, choosing not to overwork can be recast as a form of self-care against accusations of laziness or not being ‘committed’ enough to be successful. We need to redefine success and we need to redefine work-life balance, especially for those who are already starting from further back and need to run harder, faster and further just to keep up.
Most days these days, being any kind of successful at my work and my life does require disciplined self-care – taking my pills before my coffee, sitting at my desk to work instead of on the couch so my back doesn’t hurt, walking the dog and being outside, tidying up so my house is not an unmanageable tip, eating Proper Food. But, even though I am grumpy about it, I know I’m coping because I am trying to do it most days. I would not be coping at all if I was not trying to look after myself and care about myself as much as I care about my kids, my partner and my cats. And I also realise that I am able to buy heathy food to make for myself, that I live in a house that is near a park and the beach, that I work in a role that allows me a measure of flexibility with my time, that my kids are older now and pretty self-reliant, that my partner is supportive and does most of the cooking. I am, in many ways, privileged enough to do this kind of self-care without having to really struggle (to afford the food, the medication, the time). What of those who are not so privileged, who do not have support, enough money, a safe and warm roof over their heads, safe spaces to exercise in, flexibility at work? How do they build resilience, create their best lives, thrive?
I think perhaps each of us, in our own corners and in our own small but visible ways, can start redefining ‘productivity’, ‘success’ and work-life balance. Instead of just not answering emails after 5pm or on weekends and not explaining why, I can explain that I choose not to do that because that time is to unwind, to connect with my family, to do non-academic things. I can valorise that, instead of being always-available. I can help my students to make different choices about their work-life-PhD balance by talking to them about how they work and when they work and not just about what they’re working on; I can offer advice on strategies I have used to maximise my writing and reading time without taking time away from my kids and the rest of my life; I can encourage them to rest and not make that a taboo. Maybe there are other ways you can do this in your work space, to disrupt or at least put a question mark onto practices that have become taken-for-granted in many ways around publishing, teaching, meetings, email, “productivity”. Not only can we find more time and space to care for ourselves in doing this, we can also advocate for those around us who have relatively less power to speak out against work and study practices that diminish rather than build our resilience, that make us feel like failures when maybe, as Lorde argued, we are not the ones who are actually failing.