When Self-Care is Plural
I’m always late to resolutions.
If you’re anything like me, the holidays (including the total lack of any discipline or routine) inevitably seep into January, and suddenly (it really always feels sudden) the demands of life forcefully start up again, well before it feels like there’s been any time to actually rest or reset
So I ease into “resolutions.” I cut myself a little slack. Usually, I give myself most of January, February, and even March just to *think about* the year—mental preparations about who I want to be, what I want to achieve, hobbies to take up, habits to give up—and by the time the weather is warming up, so is my willpower.
My goals and hopes for 2018 sound suspiciously like the ones I’ve made before (and you probably have, too): eat healthier, workout regularly, write daily, finally hang art on the walls, finally pick up the books on my shelf collecting dust. I try to imagine who I want to be, and what steps I can take right now to become that person.
In that sense, they are habits of self-care.
To be honest, I’ve been guilty of rolling my eyes at the term self-care, especially for the way it’s so readily reduced to a “treat yo self” mentality à la Parks and Rec. But it’s not lost on me that our mental and physical health deserve any attention they get. This means paying attention to deep breaths, creative and cathartic outlets, exercise, debriefing with good friends, and taking delight in the things that most intrigue us—whether that’s Star Wars or Starry Night. Which is why (despite my eye-rolls) my better-late-than-never resolutions always seem to be about renewing these life-giving habits.
But this year, my resolutions around self-care feel different, and not just because it’s already March. They feel more urgent; more important than ever. They’ve felt this way since November, when my husband and I sat in our tiny apartment bathroom and glanced down at the first of many small tests.
A small test telling us we were pregnant with our first baby.
Inevitably, this news brings new questions and concerns to my otherwise-typical self-care resolutions. They seem to involve my whole identity: how will pregnancy and a new baby shift my social life, my sleep schedule, my relationship with my husband? Who do I want to be as a mother, what values do I want to model? Will I still be me on the other side of these nine months?
That’s why, in 2018, I’m trying to imagine what self-care means if it includes care for this 16-week baby growing inside me, and care for myself while I try to retain who I am in the process of becoming a mom for the first time.
It’s self-care—but plural.
If you think the New Year has a power to prompt self-improvement, introspection, future-planning, and goal-setting, you’d be amazed what this kind of news can do. As soon as we saw those double lines (and then the “YES,” and then plus sign—because of course we took a million tests), the whole world simultaneously narrowed and broadened. I was at once outside myself with joy and keenly aware of brand new anxieties and fears I’d never before felt. We slowly settled into the news, and I felt the seismic paradigm shift—the things-will-never-be-the-same-again-ness of the moment.
I could not have been happier. I could not have been more scared.
The presence of hope and fear have accompanied me since we found out. Hope for all the obvious reasons: the days, weeks, months we could now start counting down till we met this tiny new human, the thrill of a new adventure we’d long been waiting to start, the names we’ve whispered to each other as if trying them on for size. Fear for the obvious reasons, too: we know that almost twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and in those early weeks, it felt risky to get too attached. It felt risky to admit to a single other soul that a little being was growing inside me, as if I could jinx its existence by telling others.
I’ve hoped about who I might become as a mother, and feared what it might require me to sacrifice. I’ve hoped in my body’s innate capacities and feared that I might not recognize my body by the end of these nine months.
Just as we crossed the threshold from the first trimester to the second, these hopes and fears took over.
I started disappearing into to-do lists and baby product research and near-scrupulous reading about developmental signs and symptoms of the baby’s health in utero. I was researching safety ratings on cribs that we wouldn’t need for months; texting friends about the best breast pumps (and when they’re likely to be on sale); making plans for a nursery in a home we don’t own yet. It was like the identity I’d claimed for 29 years—Ellen—was disappearing into someone new: mother. Frankly, it was startling!
But then again—as far as I know—no change in identity or self-understanding is ever smooth.
That’s why, to retain my sense of self in the midst of this transition, I’m doubling down on rituals of self-care. There’s a temptation—at least, I can already sense my own inclination in this direction—to deep-dive into mom-mode. I don’t mean the temptation to become doting parents, or the decision to leave work and stay home (that’s awesome and I commend you, SAHMs and SAHDs!). I mean the slow slipping away of hobbies, habits, or life-giving rituals that make you, you.
For me, this means daily writing, daily reading, and daily prayer. It’s watching Bollywood movies from the ’90s with my husband. It’s long happy hour chats with girlfriends after work and meeting with my writing workshop group every other week. It’s listening to Simon and Garfunkel and Antonín Dvořzák. It’s also, of course, extremely superficial things like getting sucked into Wikipedia rabbit-holes about unsolved murders and non-ironically watching children’s movies whenever I fold laundry.
So far, care for this baby has meant eating healthy, exercising regularly, and napping frequently. So basically, it’s a win-win caregiving situation.
And I think caring for myself during this pregnancy will have mutual benefits, as well. I feel all the more eager to solidify who I am—all the tiny hallmarks of my identity—so that I don’t lose myself in the whirlwind of new life that’s coming. And this kind of self-care doesn’t feel selfish to me, because Ellen is exactly who I want to be when I meet this baby in August. It doesn’t feel selfish because I want this teeny human to get the benefit of a multi-dimensional mom who’s got 29-years’ worth of stories and habits and interests and life experiences that have formed who I am today. By investing in myself, I’ll be able to bring my whole being into this new role, this new identity.
That’s why my final resolution is simply to be present. To myself. To my body. To my own mind and heart. Because it’s too tempting to dwell on the future—to get caught up in the hopes and fears about things to come.
So every morning since November, I’ve spent time writing both stream of consciousness journal entries and poetry. I am trying to be present to these early thoughts, the ever-changing nature of my body, the small tests—now different than the first ones we took—that reaffirm our new reality, this anticipation and expectation, the commingling of hope and fear, the shifts in mood, the arrival of new aches, the moments of awe, and the strange experience of knowing a world of unknowns is just around the corner.
Cheers to us, baby. It’s our year.
Illustration by Aurore de La Morinerie
Ellen Koneck likes reading and writing and thinks homebodiness is a virtue. She has her MA in religion from Yale and works in academic publishing. She has one plant, one tattoo, and an identical twin. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, she regularly brings up both religion and politics at the dinner table.