I'm just taking a career break. I may be some time.
I have a PhD in communication and have taught in universities in Australia and the UK. I'm the author of articles on animation, play and performances of adventure; for several years I served on the editing committees for the scholarly journals Intensities and Social Semiotics.
So, I’m three-quarters of the way through my rant against self-care. I know what I want to say to wrap this puppy up and move on. I’ve even written some of it.
But DAMN, 2022 is challenging my wordability. It’s like 2021 and 2020 weren’t even trying. (Ah, hell – maybe they did. I can’t bloody remember.)
Queensland protected itself from COVID brilliantly in the first two years. Closed our borders, mandated masks, instituted short lockdowns whenever there was a breakout, and stayed safe. As of January ‘22, we’d only had 7 deaths, from a population of 5.2m.
After we reached sufficient vaccination levels, just before Christmas, the State removed all restrictions. January’s wave delayed the start of the school year by a fortnight and we’ve now passed 700 deaths. Just as it’s finally impacting all of us – upwards of 8k cases/day – the media have gone silent. It’s normal now.
A couple weeks into term we lost another week to flooding. Water shot out of the sky so unthinkably hard, our Premier called it a “rain bomb”. It sounded like it – if you can imagine a blast going for three days. My family’s safe, but the sensory roar was tough, as was the torrent of news and images of familiar places under water. We still drive past homes and businesses with their ruined stuff piled on the kerb; your heart breaks for those people.
Moving south the rain raised Wilsons river by 14 metres – can you imagine that? 14 metres! – destroying a town of 29000 people. Thousands of homes, the CBD, under water two stories deep. Electricity, sewage, and clean water, internet and food, bridges and roads, out. Worse, all tiers of relief – from local to Federal – were slow and disorganised.
A month on, they still don’t have a high, dry, safe, tent city—and it’s just flooded again.
The truth is stark: Climate change is here, now. We are one of the wealthiest, most privileged countries on Earth. If we can’t cope effectively? Fuuuuuuuck.
In this context, the federal election (which will be called any minute now) looms pretty fucking large. And look, I know Australia isn’t as big a cheese as we like to think, but our choice truly will impact everyone on Earth. Per capita we’re the third-highest emitter; we have the highest GHG emissions from coal in the world. (‘Straya!) Our major political parties’ responses range from, “er, maybe we could reduce a bit?” to “coal – don’t be afraid!” If we don’t sort ourselves out, the rest of youse are fucked. I feel … responsible.
And indoors, the usual 2e jitterbug of projects, frustrations, challenges, successes. Family stuff to think about: illnesses, pregnancies, injuries, the elders. All the (not always terribly) normal stuff we usually need respite from.
I’m doing okay. A lot of cleaning and big, manual garden work, memes with the kids, re-reading my Julia Quinns. Just not a lot of writing. Bear with me, I’ll get there.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a metonym, okay? ‘Shower’ stands for the whole concept, and my gripes apply across the board. And, yes. I’ve thought about it this much, because I suck at self-care.
The psychologist I had when the kids were about 6 and 8, thought I was fine, I just needed better organisation.
She wasn’t entirely wrong. If I get time to myself, sometimes I don’t know what to prioritise – being thirsty and needing a wee is easy, but being stinky and exhausted and a friend wants to chat? If the friend doesn’t win outright (dopamine usually does) I can overthink until the self-care window shuts, ending up neither clean, energised, nor rested.
Reason #1: “self-care” is a messy basket of competing needs.
Sometimes I intend to shower, but I forget. Consistency is, um, not a strength. I forget what I’m doing mid-stride, The Skeptic can only tell time at work, our kids fight routine like caged racoons. We’re all also anxious, curious, stubborn, and one is chronically ill. My life then was a litany of screaming, school refusal, mess, exhaustion, other people’s needs, and squirrel, so—sure, I guess?
Reason #2: Wiring. Wiring can make self-care hard.
You could say, “man that’s rough, you need several specialists, a nanny, a maid, and gin.”
Or you could say, “Try using a blank sheet of paper to represent the day. Divide it into blocks roughly proportionate to the amount of time you can spend on each activity. Say, 40% work, 20% housework and chores, 10% self-care –”
“Er, ALL my time is childcare, but even if it wasn’t, for me work IS self-care?!”
“No, it’s not. No.”
Reason #3: My self-care, may not be your self-care.
My cousin LOVES showering. It’s her safe space. Unfortunately my brain comes in there with me, and it has needs, too. Work meets my needs for interest, creativity, expression, and autonomy. Being able to feed myself seems bloody useful, too. It isn’t about caring for anyone else; it is literally about my whole, best self (and infinitely better for my mental health, than a boring bloody shower). But in my psychologist’s book, it didn’t count.
Reason #4: Capitalism detaches self-care from the essential, productive, activity that occupies most of most peoples’ time. It is ‘extra’.
According to my psychologist, self-care meant showering (um), seeing the dentist (oy), getting a massage (I mean?), going for a run (hahaha as if)—you get the idea. In this, she aligned with capitalism, seeing self-care as pertaining exclusively to bodies.
Reason #5: Our Selves are more than meat.
But hey, since meat-tending is the dominant paradigm, let’s play along.
Sometimes I don’t want a shower because it makes me itch. Dry skin plus Brisbane’s ridiculously hard water means that afterwards I’ll spend an hour or more scratching all the parts I can reach whilst rubbing against door jambs like a horse. Which makes me sweaty again. Rather than refreshing or soothing, it drives me NUTS, and sometimes I can’t face that.
Reason #6: Self-care can be unpleasant.
Of course, there are products for that: body washes, lotions, oils, and creams. So. Many. Products. I just have to find the combo that works for me, right?
Reason #7: Having reduced our Selves to meat, capitalism sells us tenderiser. Detached from work (productivity), self-care becomes consumptive.
Arwa Mahdawi dismantles commodified self-care rather wonderfully. She notes that besides being damagingly competitive, current use of the term discards Lorde’s intent, turning her politics into a tool of the very systems that oppressed her.
Note: I do NOT begrudge anyone a commodity that genuinely helps them. If lavender-scented candles are the only thing keeping you off a ledge, please, PLEASE buy all the lavender-scented candles you can afford. Staying alive is the goal here.
Let’s suppose, though, that my brain is content and I can face the itch. I get down the hall without forgetting, distracting myself, or being sidetracked, and make it into the stall.
Sometimes, I can hear the yelling and thumping. (Which for a hearing-impaired person under running water behind a closed door, is…alarming.) Sometimes I don’t hear it but get out to find someone in tears, someone else enraged, and the third person keeping their head down. Now I’m itchy with – sigh – emotional labour to do. This, people, is BACKLASH.
I need to write a whole separate post about backlash, but the TL;DR is,
Reason #8: Sometimes self-care is not bloody worth it.
Admittedly, backlash happens less, lately. But in the early days, there was always painful fallout. Always. And even with a nice husband and well-meaning family, I often couldn’t get help.
Reason #9: Self-care takes time and effort beyond the caring effort itself.
If I wanted self-care, I had to organise it. Between keeping the racoons alive, clothed, fed, and watered, stocking the house with racoon food and clothes, stopping the screaming, cleaning cat pee/spilled paint/cereal/Lego, and answering questions about if air wore clothes, I had to remember to find time to find a carer, negotiate time and day, book an appointment, coach the racoons, prep snacks, coach the carer, weather racoon wailing when I leave, attend appointment anticipating a phone call, and come home on the carer’s timetable.
Reason #10: We can’t do self-care alone.
For various reasons (including but not limited to, working two jobs + commuting 12hrs/week) the Skeptic usually couldn’t be the carer. Neither could my family, who were either geographically distant, unwell, or busy with their own jobs and children.
Reason #11: How we live now does not support us to care for ourselves.
Of course, IF I could have found someone willing and able to care for the racoons (hot tip: human parenting causes meltdowns), AND had spare cash (for a long time, we didn’t), AND had the spoons to cope with itch/backlash, I could have paid large sums (hello again, capitalism!) asking for help or advice how to make it easier.
Reason #12: Our systems do not support us to care for ourselves.
The political, it turns out, is personal.
So those are the reasons I find exhortations to self-care about as use as reminding the racoons to “be careful!” Done casually and from the sidelines, it is no help at all and may even harm.
Trouble is, we do, actually, still need to care for ourselves, hard as it is. That means thinking about it – and practicing it – in very different ways to the usual model. Next week. Right now, I need a rest.
Early last year, Australian activist Nayuka Gorrie tweeted:
Whoa! I remembered that name; I’d read some Lorde at some point, in my studies. Was I guilty? Gorrie followed up,
Hm, did I know that? I can’t remember. It was a long time ago and Lorde certainly wasn’t central to my work, but I do sometimes absorb theoretical ideas and incorporate them quite unconsciously – I read Althusser three times because I kept forgetting that the idea of schools, church, and media functioning as ideological state apparatuses, was his. I do *not* want to do that to vulnerable people, though, so I needed to dig into Lorde’s work to ensure I both understood her argument, AND wasn’t taking it for granted.
As Gorrie noted, Lorde was a Black lesbian.
But Gorrie didn’t mention that Lorde was born in 1934. She would have been two years older than my mum, who is 86 now.
That means, Lorde grew up in the pre-civil-rights era, when segregation was widespread (yes, even in New York City), when Black men had been disenfranchised, when lynchings were declining but still common enough for the NAACP to form and campaign against them in New York throughout her childhood. She was 21 when the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till finally sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
It means, Lorde grew up when homosexuality was considered a disease by the medical establishment, which advocated ‘cures’ including drugs, lobotomies, and castration. It was the era when various government organisations enforced policies to identify, fire, and prosecute gays; the ‘lavender scare’ was part and parcel of McCarthyism. Police raids were common and many states, including New York, saw protests against their laws banning gays “congregating” in bars. Lorde was finishing college when New York began repealing that legislation.
Being born in 1934 means that Lorde grew up seeing white women’s role in society shift, into and out of paid employment around WWI. She heard the subsequent discontent that led to second-wave feminism. But her mother worked, like most Black women. Lorde would have known that though it was shifting, Black women were mostly relegated to domestic labour – that is, caring for white women’s homes and children, while white women campaigned for better access to and treatment in the workplace. Black women’s contribution to what we think of as second-wave feminism, was often silenced.
I learned two other things about Lorde, too: First, she was legally blind, and she had trouble with communication. She says she didn’t talk until age five, when she was learning to read and write, and that she later sometimes answered questions by reciting poetry. (Perhaps now, she’d be diagnosed as 3e—though given the gender and racial biases in assessment, perhaps not.)
Secondly, Lorde married and bore two children to a gay, white man; after divorcing him, her lesbian life partner was also white. This category-crossing REALLY complicated things. As she noted,
“As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain ‘wrong’.” – Audre Lorde
No wonder Lorde became a queer, feminist activist! She grew up in an environment where the whole culture – not just the official apparatuses such as the government, police, media, medical sector, etc, but also, the ‘liberating’ social movements positioned against that – worked quite directly to silence people like her. THIS is what I remember about Lorde; that she charged us to think about how all the different axes of power intersect. It’s not enough to seek to raise a single social group; for people straddling those boundaries, equity is an all-or-nothing deal.
And THEN, she developed cancer. THAT’s when she developed her idea of ‘self-care’.
Whereas, previously Lorde had worked hard to bring about big, social change, when her health failed, she realised that simply staying alive was the most radical thing she could do:
“I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde
Powerful stuff, isn’t it?
And so very, very far from how the term is bandied about, these days.
So this is my first objection to idea the term self-care: it’s political. Sure, straight white women have to guard against over-extending ourselves – women’s care-giving is built into our gender ideology – but Black women still have to do more, with, on average, fewer resources, and with white feminists hindering rather than helping, more often than not.
Using Lorde’s idea, imagining that it applies just as much to me (a straight, white, woman married to a nice, white, employed, man, in the 2020s) is straight-up appropriation, and I don’t want to be part of that.
As it happens, though, I already had objections to current ideas of self-care, long before I came across Gorrie’s wonderfully provocative tweet. Next week, I’ll explore why.
Self-care is one of those topics you should just never get me started on. It presses a HEAP of my scholarly and social justice buttons as well as the cranky tired parent ones, and boy does that combo make for a ranty old rant.
But, it was GHF’s theme in November, so, I got started.
I wrote and chopped, wrote and chopped, all through October. And November.
Aaaand, December, before the usual implosion (remember for us, that month brings the end of the school year along with everything else).
And then, during an utterly exhausting and otherwise disappointing family “holiday”, I heard some podcasts that parted the clouds like rays from God. I’m not being facetious; I’m pretty thoroughly anti-religion, but the idea of God itself – pure love, in all its incomprehensible, everyday might? Totally here for that.
Those pods were lightning bolts to the half-formed ideas thickening in my head. They whipped through millennia of phylogeny in a couple of hours and lo, not only do they walk, they were sparky and appealing. They bumped together and begat more ideas, and those ideas ran around like feral children, tipping things over and swinging from my mental chandeliers. Man, I was excited, for a while there.
But, January has carried on like a pork chop, as my sister says. I’ve no idea what it means, but if it’s something like, “constant frolicking right on the brink of disaster”, then that sums things up pretty well. COVID has finally arrived in Queensland along with the first proper rainy season in years, so we’re watching the numbers skyrocket and the food chains collapse, you can’t buy masks or RATs anywhere, and care for Mum has become muuuuuch more challenging. There’s flooding and a plague of lawn grubs eating everything except that vine, which is growing 15-20cms a DAY. Then there’s completely unrelated, extra shenanigans inside my house, because THAT’S HOW IT WORKS. The TL;DR version is that, we are all – for now – mostly well, though sister and I both look and feel like we’ve been in the ring with the Hulk.
Still, all that really focused my mind on the idea of self-care. I’ve considered it while coaxing Mr Pixel out of bed in the mornings (just), waiting for Telehealth appointments, driving to and from Mum’s, walking her, sitting with her, sitting with yet another poorly hen, cruising empty supermarket aisles, coaxing both kids outdoors, coaxing both kids to eat, coaxing Mr Pixel into sleep (aiming for the same day as he woke; generally failing), sitting with anxious kids at one or two or three a.m. Yep, plenty of time to THINK about it.
So 2022 starts with a four-parter. First I need to unpack why self care bugs me so. Then I want to explore a couple cranky different ways of thinking about self care, and finally I’ll develop that into some themes for the year. It’s kinda what I’ve been doing all along, but, I dunno. Benefit of a short attention span and no medium-term memory, I guess; it feels fresh.
(I know, ermahgerd, a PLAN! Whatever next, punctuality? Remembering where I put things?!)
Anyway. That’s coming. Right now, here, it’s 12:30 and I have a kid who still hasn’t eaten breakfast; their synapses have shut so far down I’m not sure they can eat. Excuse me while I go try to reanimate them using only very limited supermarket staples and Mum power.
Three boulders, in fact: a huge one for Mum, another for Mr Pixel, and one – at 10:30pm on Friday night – for CraftyFish.
Of course, their boulders are their business. My head, my heart, my time, and my sleep, as I support them and scramble for strategies, are just collateral damage.
Then there’s the emotional-recovery week where everyone realises they’re okay after all. Just dazed, disoriented in our own lives.
On Saturday morning, though, a cool thing happened, that IS all mine to share:
A little while ago on facebook, I bumped into the author of an excellent book I’d read a few years ago. Squee! And – ooh! – turns out she’s running in the next Federal election. She commented that we need more ‘cranky, older women’ in politics, to fix this mess. Yes, ma’am!
She’s got to be… well, older than me, at least, since she was working before I started university. And the book – the title’s unforgettable but the content takes a minute – ah, yes. It was about the trade-offs between parenting and work, and how that turns children into a commodity rather than people we, you know, love. … what IS her expertise? I google, and wow! A professor of economics, a field famous for its misogyny! (As if academia itself wasn’t bad enough.)
So, a woman who really knows her stuff, who’s spent thirty years caring for her children and parents while battling the patriarchy on two fronts at work, and who is FED. UP? Stuff the Senate – make her Prime Minister, IMMEDIATELY.
And she’s running with… not the political party I would have expected, based on her age and politics. Now that is intriguing.
Of course, my brain wasn’t letting go of intriguing. Not in the good week where I did all the things, not in the week where I ran the usual 9,456 errands plus extra care for Mum keeping me out til 8pm, not in the week where both kids got splatted, and not in the exhausted aftermath.
So on Saturday, when I finally had a break from scraping everyone out of the mud, I messaged this woman, re-introduced myself, and asked if I could interview her. Within an hour she’d said yes! (The magic of social media.)
I’m a bit terrified – last time I interviewed anyone I used a tape recorder, for goodness’ sake – but also THRILLED at the chance to talk big ideas, and to write something that will lift her, me, and the big women’s political group I’ve been helping nurture.
In some ways, that’s a little boulder of my own.
Certainly it’s knocked everything else I had to do, for six. Who cares about the swamp of chores that accumulated last week or whatever I was doing before we got smooshed? Now I have exciting interview research to do, remote recording software to learn, and scary commitments to make, involving dates and times. FARK!
And then on Monday, driving between care duties, I heard this podcast, about women being pushed out of STEM because the university sector is so broken, 90% of grants don’t get funded, and you can lose a 27-year job over one knock-back.
It resonated hard; I left academia 15 years ago because despite my passion, financial investment, hours, and successes, there was, as these women have learned more recently, zero employment security. Last year Australia’s academic sector cut nearly 20,000, or 1 in 5 jobs.
These women, though, realised that their passions (creating knowledge and improving public health) could be done equally well in an office, writing policy or polishing grant applications, as in a lab, running experiments. Minus pipette work, the skills were exactly the same, they just had to be phrased differently for a different audience.
I realised, that’s what I’m doing, too. My passion is and always has been, to use words to make the world a better place. I love connecting people, thinking big ideas, and communication. I’m good at that stuff, even if I’ve never done it this particular way before. With that realisation, the murk disappeared, and presto! There was my mountain.
So that’s the moral for this week: don’t forget to keep looking for your mountain. Boulders are inevitable. Soon as you can pick yourself up, wipe the mud from your eyes, look around. It’ll be there, showing you which way to go next.
The past couple of weeks have seen an extended visit from the Executive Function Fairy and miracle of miracles, suddenly I am doing ALL THE THINGS!
I have attended appointments on time and cancelled others *before* they happened; I’ve got the kids to all their activities and kept them emotionally afloat; I’ve returned calls; I’ve paid bills before the due date; I’ve bought things I wanted for the garden AND put them in the ground; I’ve done a bit more keeping kids afloat; I’ve been taking brisk walks with the Skeptic – People, I have had three showers in the past week! THREE!
I think I know what’s done it, too, and I’m sorry to say it’s that simple magic thing you already know: eating better.
See, couple weeks back while medicating chickens, I had to step on the scales. You likely heard the scream. But it isn’t about the number, nor about appearance: It’s about how I FEEL, which for the past century has been tired and unmotivated and tired and a bit depressed and tired and a lot overwhelmed and did I mention the tired? Well, this time, quantifying that proved to be just the right prod to action. Dunno why; don’t care – it’s a gift. Thank you, Executive Function Fairy.
So I’ve made spinach- and sweet potato- laden frittatas to ensure I have healthy, thought- and effort- less breakfasts, I’ve made salads for lunch, and some nights I’ve even made low-carb dinners for me and the Skeptic, who is also feeling his age and his waistline and wondering what the hell happened. We aren’t counting calories or steps or setting any goals other than, “choose veg”.
It might not even be the biochemistry of eating better. It might just be that doing one thing, created enough of a charge to get the ball rolling. Whatever.
I feel like Indy, running for his life ahead of that boulder. I’m doing it! I’m doing it!! HOLY SHIT DON’T STOP!!!
Of course, the house still looks like that boulder’s gone through each and every room, the aftermath of the long years when I DID stop, when I simply could not figure out what to do or how to make myself do it in a timely manner. Suddenly both those capacities have switched back on.
Rather wonderfully, it seems to be contagious: The Skeptic, noticing that I’m doing more, has been doling out kudos and butt-kicks gentle reminders, and miraculously, getting off his own butt more, too.
Which is awesome, sure, but UPS THE STAKES.
A few years ago I heard a woman talk about starting her own business while working part-time and raising three kids. She’d talked about it for years, before finally realising that the biggest obstacle was fear. We got that, but what scared her was surprising: it was success. If she pulled it off – quit her job, committed to building it, took the opportunities that arose – everything would change. She’d have to rethink childcare, her housekeeping routines, how she exercised, when she got to spend time with her husband, what she said at parties. Everything. And she didn’t know how that would all look.
That’s what I’m feeling now. Partly, it’s the sheer amount of chaos I’ve got to clean up. Granted, it would be lovely if my back patio wasn’t a vista of old clothes, dead seedlings, and a towering stack of empty boxes topped with an old guitar, but if it was tidy – and if every other room was also an orderly, useable space – what would I do with that? Who would I be? I’ve been a disorganised ditz for so long, now, I can scarcely imagine functioning properly. That’d be the easy out.
The challenge is to keep going, without a map. Because the one thing you can guarantee, with these kids, is that sooner or later the boulder’s gonna catch up and knock us for six for at least a week or maybe a decade. Then that’ll pass, and you can get up and run again. So as long as you can, you’ve just gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other, even if you can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sooner or later it will appear. Keep your eye on the mountain, even if it’s just a faint outline in the mist. Keep going. Be ready.
Look, I know better than most, that Facebook is fundamentally toxic.
Early in 2020 I read most of Democracy Hacked (Moore, 2018), an academic crossover book about the forces aligned against democracy; Facebook, Twitter, and Google each got their own chapters. (I stopped reading two-thirds of the way through, when COVID hit, because honestly Moore’s analysis was dire enough without a pandemic to ramp up all the processes he’d identified. It’s a terrifying read; highly recommend.) And given the site’s misogynistic origins, recent revelations that management refused to change its ways, despite knowing that it increases self harm and suicidal ideation in girls, is hardly surprising.
That said, I’m not prepared to abandon it, for a few reasons.
First, I’ve been lucky enough to find some terrific community groups. My G/2e parenting and homeschool groups are wonderful, deeply valued sources of support and information. I cannot imagine the kids or I would have survived, without that.
In fact, I’ve learned HEAPS about allsorts, which really suits my jill-of-all-trades brain. I belong to groups for raising mealworms, neurodiversity, chickens, gardening, preserving, astronomy, writing, electrical efficiency in the home, and homeschooling; I can ask a question and get specific, local answers far faster – and with less clutter – than if I had a book for each issue. Sure, sometimes the information is wrong, but the nice thing about a group is that incorrect info is usually corrected by other members, pretty speedily, and people often link to articles I couldn’t have found myself.
Thirdly, I value the friends I’ve made. I found a cousin (yes, really), made connections around Australia and in several other countries, and also maintained some friendships that would have otherwise fallen away. In my first year in the UK (1999) I taught two students who have since married, moved to Norway, and had children; recently the mum approached me about their parenting challenges because things I’ve posted demonstrated that I understood. I could share what I’ve learned and bring her into my communities; in turn, I’ve learned about wiring issues I hadn’t previously encountered as well as about the Norwegian system. Win, win!
Fourthly and, for me, crucially, facebook provides an ideal space for online activism that I can fit in around my other responsibilities. For a couple years now I’ve been an active member of the international I Am Here movement, which aims to make social media a safer space by providing compassionate, nuanced, fact-based commentary on news posts that attract hate. It’s a proven, effective strategy that can ‘turn’ comments on a post from horrible to tolerable, but even when that doesn’t happen, it demonstrates to others that there ARE decent folks in the world, folks who will stand up to bullies and who can disagree without resorting to ad-hominem attacks. The fact that I can do that standing in Kmart while the kids assess this season’s Lego offerings, is nothing short of miraculous.
I also engage in climate activism, political groups, and regular prodding of my Federal MP, who really needs to up her game, not only to retain her seat but more importantly, to make a difference in the world. I can donate, fundraise, raise awareness, and share a bad pun, over breakfast or while cooking dinner. I freaking LOVE THAT.
So here’s the thing: if we step away, we abandon social media platforms to the bullies and the corrupting forces that are quite actively seeking to destroy liberal democracy. That would be a shame, since the very things that make facebook such a stew of hate and disinformation, can also be used to make the world a better place.
No criticism for anyone who has ever stepped away because social media was damaging their mental health, or to avoid the time-suck. That’s just smart. Kudos to you for recognising it and looking after yourself. It is certainly possible to land in the quicksand, and we know that the algorithms will shove you in that direction. But with care and judgement, they can also bring you towards expertise, beauty, joy, community, and friends.
Writing the entire experience off wholesale as irredeemably ‘bad’, is just as foolish as those who write off all of science because of the atom bomb, or thalidomide. Yes, so far, they’ve both been tools of the patriarchy, but they are just tools, and ultimately their use is down to people. Us. They can be used badly or well; avoiding them not only doesn’t make it go away, it makes things worse for the people left behind. But the more of us who participate consciously, kindly, and respectfully, the better the experience is for everyone. Just like everything else in life.
Good morning! It’s blog day, and if you want word from the land of teh gifted, too bad, I’m totally piking out.
My head is full of a conversation I’ve been trying to pin down for months now. Last night I finally heard the characters talking again, and the universe sent me a sign via Liz Gilbert, so I’m going to fiction before I kitchen and garden.
May you, also, get dirt, flour, wood, wool, or words under your nails today.
Ugh, anxiety. It’s such a tentacled THING. And rather embarrassingly, my experience of it only partly overlaps with what the books say. But this week a friend shared a long article accurately describing the other part, and I’m so vindicated, I’m inspired to share.
Everyone I’m related to is a jittery ball of nerves, okay? Partially, we’re just HSPs. At three months of age when Mum first took me to the supermarket, we learned that too much stimulation made me projectile vomit. (Quite happily, Mum reports.) By six I’d spewed so spectacularly in so many places, the paediatrician ordered a barium X-ray to check it wasn’t structural. Nope, just excitement – ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, same result. By adolescence I’d outgrown it, thankfully, though I have on occasion lost 10kgs to nervous nausea.
Mum couldn’t help. She had a traumatic, repressed upbringing which led to anxious, authoritarian parenting. “One mistake can ruin your whole life,” she’d say, and no that’s not a helpful thing to say to bright, sensitive kids. You bet we developed unhelpful thinking styles.
To me, though, that was always separate from the panic, which seemed to arrive in my psyche fully detonated. It never felt as though it followed the unhelpful thoughts. Quite the reverse: I’d feel sick and then, freaking out, the unhelpful thought processes kick in. Which sure, makes things worse, but didn’t come first. (A psychologist/friend once insisted, “Yes they do, they’re just too fast for you to notice”. We’re no longer friends.)
Sadly for me, this is the age of cognitive hegemony. Thus, as a kid in the 70s, they told me to “just think about something else,” rather than the fact I felt like puking, to “make it go away”.
By the late 80s/early 90s, psychologists had elaborated that into “cognitive behavioural therapy” (CBT). Back then, this was promoted as replacing anxiety’s habitual spiral by choosing ‘positive’ thoughts that would, theoretically and with enough practice, build new neural networks.
Except this not only didn’t work for me, it projected me faster into the pit. Inside my head speedily became a chaotic game of whack-a-mole: trying to catch all eight tracks of thought, stop them, and replace their blunders with something more useful, while they raced around, whacking back: Why should I believe this thought over that one? Where’s the evidence?? WHO AM I TRYING TO KID???
Then shame boosted the anxiety: “What the fuck is wrong with me that I cannot master this?!” In 1998 a psychologist finally told me, they knew CBT didn’t work for highly analytical people. (Alas, no reference, though I’ve since found this useful summary.) Phew. True, it left me with no tools for a couple decades, but it was better than persisting with something guaranteed to make things worse:
I mean, seriously. Anxiety makes you hyper-vigilant, so trying to police unhelpful thoughts is, firstly, pouring more energy into a behaviour that’s already causing trouble.
Secondly, we now know how unbalanced anxious brains are: the primitive limbic system fires up, shutting down the more recently developed frontal lobe. So whereas Broca’s area (responsible for speech, including inner speech) does help regulate emotion when we’re calm, when we’re anxious the amygdala drop-kicks it back to the stone age. If words form, they’re gibberish, and trying to force some sort of coherence only adds struggle to struggle.
Thirdly – and most importantly, IMHO – cognitivist approaches put the cart before the horse; they do not address the whole person. Was it unhelpful thought patterns that had me barfing in the produce aisle at Raley’s, age three months? OF COURSE IT BLOODY WASN’T.
It was a trigger-happy nervous system, simple as that.
And no matter how much brain power I threw at it, thoughts were never, ever, going to fix that, any more than you can use them to put out a fire, because mind over matter is ableist, patriarchal bullshit (lecture redacted). Instead I have learned to see unhelpful thought styles not as the cause but as symptoms of anxiety. Soon as I hear them in my head, I know I need to address what’s out of kilter:
Too much work, not enough sun?
Too much caring, not enough writing?
Too much caffeine, not enough sleep?
Too much company, not enough solitude?
Too many carbs, not enough greens? (Turns out, this one’s really important. Like, HUGE. Who knew?!)
If that stuff is off, your thoughts will be off, too. (And certainly not up to the job of self-repair.) Conversely, fix that and your brain chemistry will – well, possibly not right itself, but certainly do better. THEN you can start with the mental work. As one wise friend put it, “Biology before psychology, always.”
Of course, that all becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, when you’re already swamped – but then, so does CBT. I’m not discounting CBT altogether; it’s clearly effective for quite a lot of people, and some of the new versions seem potentially, far more useful.
But for me the main takeaway has been a kind of gentle, absent-minded mindfulness: I eavesdrop on the tracks every once in a while, while spending some time every day watering the garden, hanging out with the chooks and making sure I don’t go too long without looking at the sea or down from a mountain. Anywhere with a different perspective, off the hamster wheel. All that does far, FAR more to keep my head from going off-piste, than any mental practice would ever do. The trick is to let other systems drive for a while.
And now, finally, psychology is catching up. Cool, eh?