Being Selfish

There is nothing selfish about self care. Yes, numerous ads for spas and fancy lotions and rich chocolates make it seem that doing for self is an indulgence — some sort of naughtiness. It isn’t. In fact, for women especially –disproportionately charged with being the world’s caretakers — it is not just important, it is mandatory. As writer, Maya K. Francis, says, “Without self care we are subject to wear and tear. And who else can we hold responsible to care for us?”

American women spend a lot of time taking care of other people. According to Dr. Jeannette Wicks-Lim, assistant research professor at the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Labor Department’s American Time Use survey shows “working mothers [have] less time for leisure, personal care and rest.” Married, full-time working mothers, on average, do more paid and unpaid (household and child-rearing) work combined, compared to full-time working fathers (65 hours per week vs. 61.5 hours).

Of course, not every woman is married or a mother. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center report on Breadwinner Moms — mothers who are primary providers for their families — show that single mothers in this cohort are more likely to be black or Latina. These women carry a double burden.

And being childfree lets no one off the hook. Women, whether single or married, mothers or childfree, are expected to be uniquely selfless and attentive to the needs of others. Black women, perhaps, most of all. The archetype of the strong black woman is predicated on this idea and the additional one that black women are beasts of burden, naturally able to carry any physical or emotional burden. “Strong black woman” may sound positive, but it is an idea that is quite literally killing us. Stress researcher Shelly Taylor reports that black women “tend, befriend, mend, and keep it in” in response to stress. And the result is a negative impact on our blood pressure, cardiovascular system and overall health.

We sacrifice for our families, our jobs and our communities, but as a Twitter friend told me, “If I don’t put my oxygen mask on first, I can’t help others, as the airlines would put it.” We are of no use to the people we love if we are stressed and sick and worn down. This goes for all women.

Taking 30 minutes for a walk is not selfish.

Splurging on a cute, summer mani/pedi is not selfish.

Taking some extra time to pack a healthy lunch is not selfish.

Putting on your best dress for a night out with the girls is not selfish.

Maintaining a blog of poetry or essays is not selfish.

“Each day of good health (mind, body, and spirit) is a gift,” says Nora Woodman, a married mom and not-for-profit professional. “The truest self-care for me is getting enough sleep and time to run. I fall shortest in the eating right department. Any ache or pain in my body, mind, or heart is my “self” telling me to pay attention to some need that I’m ignoring. My best self comes from giving my body, mind, and heart the care each is calling for. Self-care is paying attention to those needs like I would the needs of my own children. Self-care is not being so hard on myself when there’s never enough time or energy to do it all — sleep well or run the mileage goal or eat right — perfectly.”

It is not indulgent to treat yourself gently. If taking care of our mental and physical well-being is selfish, then selfish all women should be. We need to encourage each other to be selfish. We can help our sisters to be selfish — the harried, single moms and the workaholic, hard-driving executives. We can meet here, in this space, to learn ways to care for ourselves, to make our bodies and spirits sing. We can feel beautiful and rested and healthy and rejuvenated. And that can be the armor we put on to great the world.

A little selfishness could save us … and the ones we love.

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