Once again, I have been asked by BlogHer staff to answer a couple of questions about finding balance and happiness in life. The inquiry this go-around was:
How do you put yourself first? How does taking time for yourself help make you happier?
Wow. Tough question. As a mother of small children whose husband traveled nearly every week, I didn't used to think putting myself first was even an option. It wasn't until I literally began losing my sense of self and hit a crisis point that I realized I hadn't even put myself on the list, much less anywhere near the top.
As girls and then women, so many of us were steeped in the tradition of caring for others above all else. We have a biological disadvantage that further complicates the matter, because our brains actually give us a shot of oxytocin (a hormone that reduces anxiety and promotes connection between us and others) when we empathize or take care of someone or something else. We literally feel better when we are nurturing something other than ourselves. Great for promoting motherly love and bonding. Not so much for promoting self-care.
It took a lot of therapy and some really vocal people in my life to convince me that taking care of myself was actually a way to continue to take care of other people better. If I'm a broken-down shell of a human, I'm not much use to my kids or my husband or that cause I so fervently believe in. If I am so depressed I can't manage to get out of bed in the morning, I'm not doing anybody any good.
Ultimately, though, the most important, most penetrating message I received was from someone who pointed out that I am raising daughters. Daughters who are watching me wear myself out in the unending pursuit of caring for everyone else around me - anticipating and meeting their needs and smoothing out wrinkles wherever I go. Daughters who are learning by osmosis, like little tea bags absorbing all of my "I will take care of everyone else before myself" liquid, that this is the highest, best use of one's self. Especially if you are a mom. Is that what I want for my girls? To grow up and be of service to everyone else at their own expense?
No, it's not what I want. And so when I put my own little girl self in their place and ask what I want for her, it is that she feel loved. Honored. Free to follow her dreams. Comfortable in her own skin.
It took months, but I made it a point to sit down for at least five minutes every day and ask myself what I wanted. What would make me happy? And what could I do toward that today? What small step could I take both for myself and in an effort to be an example for my girls that I am important, too? That my needs are just as vital as anyone else's.
Over the years I have gone back to writing, making sure to take time every day to ignore paperwork, housework, the whining of the dog, and just write. Because that is one thing that makes me happy. I have also made my health a priority, getting together with a friend at least once a week to walk or take a yoga class and taking cooking classes at the local organic food co-op. More than anything, though, I have given myself permission to have fun. No longer do I watch my children with envy as they scale the jungle gym or sprawl out in a fort they made and stocked with books and snacks. Just as I make sure they have time to play every day in addition to the practices and schoolwork and chores they do, I give myself the same consideration. Some days that means hiding in the corner with my iPad playing solitaire or reading. Other days I crank up the music and dance through the kitchen or get out the fingerpaints and make a mess.
What I have learned is that I am the only person who can choose to make me happy. And while nurturing my growing family and caring for others gives me a great deal of satisfaction, affirming that I am one of the most important people I know and nurturing myself is just as pleasurable. The more self-worth I have, the better others treat me and taking time out to honor myself and all my hard work lets my girls know they can do the same for themselves.
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