Self-care 3/4: Nine Real Rules for Respite

ID: high view over calm, sun-lit ocean, trees below, low mountains on the left-hand horizon, a few low clouds, sun flare in the centre-top. It’s Hat Head, overlooking Trial Bay NSW, on unceded Dhungutti land. ©careerusinterruptus

Welcome to Rebecca’s Rant Against Self-Care, part 3.

Part one examined how Audre Lorde conceived self-care as a political act against extreme structural oppression and a life-threatening disease. Since we’re discussing a qualitatively and structurally different struggle, we need a different term.

Part two unpacked how misguided it is, anyway. Under capitalism, the way we describe self-care – as extra, focused on bodies, and hugely commodified – misconstrues both selves and care. The way we live – families atomised, communities diffused, services commercialised – doesn’t support us to care for ourselves. Nor can our poor, rule-bound institutions truly help. Self-care becomes aspirational, when it should be fundamental.

And it is fundamental: if we don’t maintain ourselves, we lose functionality. 

Women and mothers in particular sacrifice their health when we try to “have it all”, other power axes exacerbating the stress.

Mothers of high-needs children struggle with an exquisitely complex, synergistic tangle of unmet needs: Not only do we live with the intensity of our kids’ extra needs, the pain of seeing those needs so often unmet, with the resulting fallout, and with the grief of watching society judge them for their struggles, their needs haven’t come from nowhere. Often we are also struggling with our own, extra, unmet needs, unsupported and harshly judged for our struggles, too.

And yet, as adults, our job is to hold everyone else afloat until the lifeboat arrives, the storm passes, or they learn to swim. I really struggled to accept this. I deeply resented the “oxygen mask” analogy; I had enough to do, dammit! I wanted someone – anyone – to swoop in and give me a break, a little respite so I could just, for the love of god, be myself again. THEN, I thought. THEN I could breathe.

But it doesn’t work that way. We have to respite our selves, during the storm.

I’m kinda liking that term, respite.

ID: definition of “respite” from “(n) extension of time for an action, deliberation, etc., grace period; postponement of an action, judgement, etc., … (v) reprieve from death”.

Because that’s what it’s really about, right? Grabbing enough air to consider our moves rather than floundering and flailing? Feeling our full selves, with history, a future, and values, to launch our kids safely?

So here are Rebecca’s Nine Real Rules for Respite:

1. Recognise that ‘filling your cup’ requires resources.

Time. Also physical, mental, and emotional energy, executive function skills, recovery space, possibly money, and having your kids either cared for or self-managing while you’re doing it—which for parents of asynchronous kids can be the most elusive of grails. It is never as simple as “prioritising”, or making time.

2. Recognise that you can’t meet all your dependents’ needs and your own, by yourself.

Nobody can. Grieve that fact if you need to. I sure did.

3. Recognise that respite covers competing needs.

Our selves include bodies, minds, and spirits. Often their needs conflict – hence, late-night scrolling, the body’s need for sleep postponed while our brains seek stimulus or wind down; while our spirits connect with friends; while we just BE. That’s all as valid as the need for sleep.

4. Forgive yourself for not caring for yourself as you “should”.

Parents love Ross Greene’s “children do well if they can”, but we rarely give ourselves that grace. But, see Rules 1, 2, and 3. We ALL do the best we can, with the resources we have in the moment. 

When your kid is happily bobbing along, you’ll have resources for yoga and salads. Meanwhile, skipping meals and showers doesn’t mean you don’t care for yourself. It means you’re doing the best you can, with limited resources.

5. Ditch all your expectations of what respite might look like.

Whatever gets you through the night, to quote John Lennon, is alright. Cleaning – if it makes you feel better – COUNTS. So do work, game apps, gin, shitposts, food, sleeping in today’s clothes (STILL SLEEPING), exercise, AND skipping exercise to rest. Only you can balance what you need, with what you can do at the time.

6. Recognise that resources vary through the day (and night), weeks, years, decades.

Some days you have the resources to write and jog and shower, in between caring for others.

Some days you can barely stay hydrated.

Some days a five-minute cry on the toilet is the best you can manage.

Sometimes the toilet-crying days, go for years.

Some days start off well and turn to worms; some days go the other way for no reason at all.

7. Accept that things change.

Jobs change, services become available, children grow, children learn, you learn, lifeboats appear in the form of friends, teachers, therapists. You don’t have to do anything, except keep yourself and your dependents connected and afloat until that happens. (Keeping yourself and your dependents connected and afloat, is enough.)

8. All respite is good respite.

Micro-care – the minute breaths we grab for ourselves in the interstices – keeps us afloat. I want to credit Jen Merrill and Kate Arms for this idea, but none of us can find a precise link. A drink of water, a vegetable, moving to a better chair, compassionate self-talk, a 20-second stretch, deep breaths, a text exchange with a friend, however brief. It all puts air in the tanks.

ID: screenshot of an exchange between myself and a northern-hemisphere friend (whose profile has been masked with a head-exploding emoji). I said “AARGH” and nearly twelve hours later she said, “Yes. I concur.” And we both felt better. ©careerusinterruptus

9. Community is everything.

Even if they only live in your computer, people who get it, will buoy you. And sometimes, miraculously, they have life-rings. But even when there’s no land in sight, being seen, being heard, is proof you haven’t drowned and are therefore succeeding.

It really is that simple.

If you’re still here, you’re doing self-care right.

And when you have better support, or more resources, or fewer demands, you will do it better. I promise.