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When Self-Care Fails, Try Self-Parenting

Me

I had been reprimanding myself for not changing the sheets for three weeks when, one day, in a fit of frustration, I furiously stripped the bed on my way to work. A little motivation for Future Me. Fifteen hours and two shifts at different jobs later, I returned home and collapsed on my couch for my usual palliative care of clean-the-fridge ramen and Dr. Who. And when I finally decided to curl up in bed, lo and behold: Past Me was a dick.

I would love to report that I went downstairs to get the nice clean sheets out of the dryer and treated my exhausted self to a beautifully made bed, but no. Instead, like some terrible mix of a petulant teenager and an apathetic house cat, I just made a nest of blankets and laundry and shut my eyes, cursing my past self and her ill-advised attempts at forced responsibility.

The truth is, when I’m left alone too long, I tend to go a little feral. My sleep schedule becomes erratic, my screen time flies off the charts, my meals become… creative. My strategy for mitigating this behavior is to invite people over so that I have to do things like clean the bathroom and migrate the collection of bras from the back of my couch back into my dresser. On one such night, after the cleaning was done and a friend came over to order takeout, said friend described her own self-care persona as “Cool Single Dad.” “It’s how I think of myself when I have to do adult-type things,” she explained. “Cool Single Dad does laundry on Tuesday so he can play video games with the kids on the weekend. Cool Single Dad keeps a box of granola bars by the door so the kids don’t leave the house without breakfast. But the family is all me: I’m the dad and the kids.”

If I’m being honest, most of my self-care strategies feel pretty adversarial.

She was half-kidding, but I was taken by the framing: I liked the idea of self-care as self-parenting. Maybe I needed that, too. As much as I try to take care of myself in a loving way—to set Future Me up for success—if I’m being honest, most of my self-care strategies feel pretty adversarial. Like I’m just trying to trick Future Me into making good decisions. Sometimes I succeed, like when I make extra soup and freeze it for lunches. Sometimes I fail, like every time I say, “I’ll just get up early and finish it in the morning.” (This has never worked. Not once.) But what if instead of casting myself in the role of Permanently Flailing Adult, I could think of myself as a kind and capable parent to my own inner child?

Berating myself for skills and knowledge I don’t have, not giving my body proper fuel, leaving myself too little time to complete a project—this is not good self-parenting. A better self-parent would have a soothing playlist ready for when her inner child feels panicky and stressed. She would stash some healthy(ish) frozen meals in the office freezer for when her inner child forgets to pack lunch. She might even actually use that Bedtime feature that showed up on the iPhone a while ago to help her kiddo say no to the just-one-more-episode trap. (Or maybe I should just give up on that one, parenting fail or no.) In other words, I would have more compassion for myself in cases of Failures of Adulting, like forgotten produce rotten in the fridge, late credit-card payments, procrastination on job applications. Instead of self-flagellation and trickery, the focus would be on learning from my mistakes.

Doing a friend’s dishes in a stressful week feels like a gift I can give, whereas doing my own is just another chore.

Truth is, I find it easier, sometimes, to show love to others than to show it to myself. Especially when it comes to the nitty-gritty business of caregiving. Doing a friend’s dishes in a stressful week feels like a gift I can give, whereas doing my own is just another chore. But if I shift my perspective to see caring for myself as caring for my inner child (who is doing her best, I think) then maybe I can be less resentful of the work of self-care, and find ways to take care of myself in a style that is more kind. Or at least be more forgiving of my failures along the way.

I will likely never achieve the mythical state of ready-for-the-week-ness that I so often dream of (meals prepped, home tidied, self relaxed) but I’m starting to view the practice of self-care as a working meditation. The better I care for myself, the more I show myself love, the more I understand the worth of that love and the strength of it. And sometimes, like a parent would her child, I can even love myself enough to finish changing the sheets before I leave for work.

Graphics by Lorenza Centi.

Molly Conway

Molly Conway is a playwright and writer living in Oakland, California. She has yet to finish a cup of tea while it is still hot.

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