Many years ago, when I was pregnant with my firstborn, I asked a friend how I would be different after my baby arrived. I’d heard foreboding rumors that becoming a mother irrevocably changed a woman, that she often had trouble maintaining who she was before. My friend wisely counseled me, “If it was important to you before she was born, you’ll make space for it after she arrives. If it wasn’t important, you’ll let it go.”
I’ve found that Rob’s death has had a similar effect on the way I live my life day to day, especially when it comes to caring for myself. Every once and a while, I’ll be asked, “You’re caring for everybody else. How are you caring for you?” The question puzzles me most of the time. I’m not sure what kind of self-care people expect. I’ve never been the spa treatment, ladies’ shopping day kind of girl. I’ve never gone to the Bahamas on an all-girls weekend. If self-care means this sort of indulgence, I didn’t do it much before, and I haven’t done any of those things since Rob died.
For me, self-care has always meant indulging in simpler things. A few extra hours of sleep on a Saturday morning and a shower with the chance to straighten my hair afterwards. I’m introverted by nature, so self-care often includes a good book with a side of brownies as a mid-morning snack or a walk around TJ Maxx to distract me from doing dishes on a Sunday afternoon. Those things may seem mundane, but they’re what I’ve always liked. They are ways I’ve always taken care of myself. And, thankfully, I haven’t had to give them up since I’ve become a widow. Like my friend said, if they were important to me before, I’ll make space for them after.
In my new life, self-care looks pretty much the same as it did before Rob died. It’s paper plates at dinner instead of dishes, pre-packed bags of chips for lunch instead of Ziploc baggies of pretzels. It’s Friday night pizza night and mandatory sleeping in on Saturdays. It’s saying no to an outside commitment so I can take that long hot shower and straighten my hair on a week day. There’s no glamour to my self-care, but it gets the job done. Self-care means giving my brain time to air out, allowing fresh hope and perspective to flood my soul.
I know that women hear lots of admonitions to engage in self-care, but I wonder if we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of what that’s supposed to look like. Especially, in grief, I’m working to break down expectations of what I need to do and who I need to be. A silent car on the way to school can settle the mind. A dinner of hot dogs and Bush’s baked beans (on paper plates!) can nourish the spirit when it is weary. A warm cup of tea on a cold morning, a quiet walk to the mailbox, a text conversation with a friend far away. All of these can count as self-care.
Grief can be like a demanding newborn. It wakes me in the night and wants to be fed. It clamors for my attention in fits and starts all day long. Sometimes it makes a mess I need to clean up, even when I’m tired. Thankfully, I’ve had four babies, so I know the routine. I’ve learned how to care for myself in moments like these. Self-care in little bits, just enough to keep me nurtured and renewed. In fact, I’ll be off now. It’s time to wash my hair.