Be Good to Yourself: How to Self-Nurture
How Caring for Others Can Harm Yourself
Last year, when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with what proved to be terminal cancer, the tragedy was hers, but the stress of the situation was mine, too. Throughout the fall my husband, an only child, repeatedly traveled from California to Texas to be with her, visits that dragged out for weeks as she grew sicker. Each day he and I spoke for hours by phone, trying to craft a plan for her care, and for that of my father-in-law, who was physically healthy but suffering early-stage dementia. My professional workload was as demanding as ever, and without a spouse to help, domestic chores were endless -- hours of driving our daughter to soccer practice and distant weekend tournaments, walking the dog, collecting the garbage, shopping, cleaning, cooking, paying bills. Adding to the pressure was that I needed to visit my own elderly mother, who lives 100 miles away, and take a long-delayed trip to the East Coast to visit an aunt who was childless, recently widowed, and unwell.
To accomplish it all, I needed extra time, and the logical way to make it was to cut out the "fat" in my schedule -- that is, the few things I usually did just for myself. First to go was my morning workout, an hour of cardio and weight lifting; soon thereafter came my nightly reading once my daughter went to bed; if a friend called with a dinner invitation or just to chat, the response was always "I'm too busy." The choice felt both right and necessary, but the irony was that despite the hours I gained, I accomplished less and less. Work assignments dragged on while I stared dully at the computer screen. Dinners were late because I'd forget to buy necessary ingredients, then would have to dash out at the last minute. Even bill paying took forever because I constantly misplaced papers. Meanwhile, my temper grew shorter -- I snapped at my daughter, resented the dog, and responded impatiently to my husband's (well deserved) need for emotional support.
The truth is, I was fried -- and as such, not so different from most women I know. We all live with our heads just above water, pulled in a dozen directions each day by the clamorous, competing demands of family, home, and job. We manage to make it work, but a time always comes when some crisis destroys the delicate balance -- an aging parent deteriorates or dies, a child or spouse falls ill, a layoff notice arrives...for the truly unlucky, several happen at once. Quickly, almost automatically, we step in to take charge, squeezing out time for our new responsibilities by giving up the small indulgences we normally grant ourselves. That's what responsible grown-ups do, we reason. But we invariably discover, as I did, that the strategy backfires, and for a simple reason: When you constantly give but don't receive, you eventually find yourself empty. The central contradiction of crises is that the more we're stressed and the less time we have to nurture ourselves, the more essential it is that we do so.