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mental health

Self-Care Isn’t a Buzzword. It’s Essential in These Times.

It’s 10 p.m. and we are still negotiating who is sleeping where. Yes, my kids are fortunate to each have their own bed in their own room. My daughter (almost 11) even has bunk beds in case she and her brother (who just turned 8) want to have a “sleepover,” but my daughter occasionally wants to sleep on the floor of our bedroom, and my son always prefers to sleep smashed between me and my husband in our queen-sized bed.

We’ve been giving in to these requests a lot in the last few months — and even more so in the last few weeks, as we have overlaid our concerns about Black people being murdered across the United States on our anxieties about the Covid-19 pandemic. We have allowed for creative sleeping arrangements partially because we know our kids need us right now, and partially because we don’t have the energy at the end of a long day to convince them otherwise.

As a family, we have been social-distancing and sheltering in place since March 13, and we have continued to do so even as the restrictions in our area have been relaxed. Our only meaningful in-person interactions have been with each other. In many ways we are fortunate: We love each other and, most of the time, we like each other, too. My husband and I are able to do most of our work from home and go to our respective offices on opposite days so one of us can always be with our kids. I am still being paid my full salary and my husband’s online business selling comic books has taken off during the pandemic.

We are also fortunate because the color of our skin protects us from racial discrimination and most systemic inequality. In that way, our situation is easier than many people’s. But we have something in common with all the other social distancing parents of young kids I talk to, whether they’re struggling financially or have all the material comfort they need; or whether they are Parents of Color or not. As every parent across the country knows, we all have become our kids’ everything: parents, teachers, playmates, cooks, coaches, and comfort.

But when we are completely maxed out being our kids’ everything, how can we have anything left for ourselves?’

Self-care is a buzzword that conjures up images of Gwyneth Paltrow doing yoga in a crocheted bikini on a private island. We’ve never had the resources for that kind of vacation, but for me, self-care is my morning walk. I wake up before my family and take time to do a few stretches before I walk two loops through our suburban neighborhood, wearing shorts I bought at Target, a 25-year-old t-shirt I’ve cut a V into, and, to hold back my curls, a makeshift headband that was once a shirt sleeve.

Once I come home, I log onto my work email while simultaneously negotiating endless sibling rivalry, inventing new ways to keep my kids off screens, pursuing my own creative endeavors, and finding ways to support my community as they protest inequality, care for Covid-19 patients, and work to get candidates elected who will take action to address these things. I don’t always make it out for my walk, and I don’t always accomplish what I want each day, but I know the days I feel some measure of hope are the days I’ve taken care of myself, done my job, been present for my family, and contributed to repairing the world.

The other night, the 10 p.m. bedtime negotiations end with my husband and son in my son’s bed and my daughter and me and my bed, so when I wake up for my walk the next morning, my daughter grabs my arm and asks me to stay. I cuddle with her for a little while longer and then move to the yoga mat next to my bed. As I stretch, my daughter asks why I need to go out.

“So I can be a better mom,” I tell her.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“You’ve heard about the oxygen mask in the airplane, right?” I ask.

“Adults are supposed to put it on first before you put it on kids,” she replies.

“Do you know why that is?”

“No,” she says.

“Can you guess?”

That skeptical look she gets when she knows I’m about to impart wisdom on her takes over her face. “So you don’t pass out?” she offers.

“Right,” I say.

Header image by hisa nishiya/Getty Images

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