Even before the pandemic hit, it became popular to prioritise “self care.” Parenting podcasts like One Bad Mother have long discussed the challenges parents (particularly mothers) face in finding balance: One of their signature phrases is “I am a self,” a fact we’re meant to remind ourselves of when we feel like anything but a self. And if parenting wasn’t hard enough before, the coronavirus came along and destroyed what semblance of work-life balance we’d managed to carve out for ourselves.
Suddenly, a little happy hour self care with your bestie was no longer an option. Even going for a walk with your bestie became risky. You couldn’t get a massage or a pedicure or go golfing with your buddies. And who had time for a nice, long soak in the bathtub in between your own work and the kids’ school work and then more of your own work because you’re behind on everything?
Then we started saying — half-sarcastically, half-not — that a quick walk (alone) around the neighbourhood was self care. Or a drive around the city (alone) was self care. Or five minutes locked in the bathroom (alone). Mere survival became all the self care we could muster. This dialogue, as Diana Spalding writes for Motherly, became all too familiar:
It also occurs to me that I recently made a related joke while sitting in the dentist chair. “You doing ok?” the hygienist asked.
“Oh, I’m great, this feels like a holiday,” I replied.
Is it easier to run errands or clean the bathroom or go to the dentist without a child in tow? You bet. Do those activities constitute breaks? Absolutely not.
We lowered the self care bar — we dropped the bar all the way down to the ground — because we had to, but it’s been more than six months and not a whole lot has changed. Parents are beyond needing a little extra self care each week, we need actual help. Not empty reminders to “make time” for themselves — skip the cliché about the oxygen mask, please, we know it. It’s not that parents don’t want to take care of ourselves, it’s that it’s impossible right now without help.
This is especially true for parents of little kids, kids with special needs, and kids who are learning remotely full-time — particularly if those parents are also trying to keep their own jobs afloat.
If you’re not a parent, or if you’re a parent who isn’t struggling as much right now because maybe your kids are older, or back in school at least part of the time (I fall into this category, too), don’t offer self care advice — offer actual help.
Pretend like they are brand new parents, home from the hospital, recovering from the physical toll of child birth and adjusting to the mental and emotional toll of endless days and sleepless nights. What would you do? Send a meal. Pay to get their house professionally cleaned. Pick up their dirty laundry and return it the next day, clean and folded. You can do all of those things now, even if (especially if!) their kids are ages five and three and one. They’d probably give anything right now for the struggle of a single newborn; that seems like nothing compared to what they’re juggling now.
Offer to help in whatever safe, socially-distanced way everyone is comfortable with. Walk the kids to the park a few times a week or supervise them while they ride their bike up and down the street. Play a board game with them over Zoom while Mum or Dad is on a work conference call. Drop off dinners or groceries. Ask them what they need. Don’t believe them if they say “nothing.” They do need something, they just don’t know what, or how to ask.
Just because we’ve gotten used to the idea that 2020 is a big shit show doesn’t mean parents are suddenly ok. They need self care, yes, and hopefully 2021 brings them some of that. But in the meantime, what they mostly need, is help.