Point of View: What Does "Self-Care" Mean to You?
By Whitney Stohr
During the second trimester of my first pregnancy, my husband and I learned that our son would be born with several congenital disabilities.
That day — “Diagnosis Day” — was the first fork in the road of our parenting journey. It was the day that we first stepped off the path of “typical” parenthood and on to the less-frequently traveled road of Medical Parenting.
For the first two years of our son’s life, our experience with parenting was nothing short of chaos. We spent months living in a hospital and made countless trips to the emergency room, often in the back of an ambulance, lights on and sirens blaring. We made four medical flights in a single year.
Yes, I found great joy in my son, and in motherhood, but it would be dishonest to say that those early days were not also filled with deep trauma.
And through that trauma, I was constantly asked the same questions: “Are you taking care of yourself?” “What are you doing to practice self-care?” “Are you making sure to fill your cup? Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup.”
I grew to hate that word.
In those days, my son was fragile. There was brain surgery and heart surgery. There was a trach and a ventilator. My emotions were raw. So, no… I was not taking care of myself.
I had no energy to take care of myself. I did not have the energy to think about myself. I was incapable at that moment in my life of thinking about anything other than my son and doing all that I could to keep him alive.
And people kept asking about my “self-care” strategies — like they even existed…
And, every time they asked, I reverted to a well-practiced, “scowl-and-shrug” response.
Maybe you know that response too. Maybe you have it, still, always at the ready.
Admittedly, during this time, I also had absolutely no idea what “self-care” even meant. It was difficult for me to move past the image that the word itself brought to mind: An over-worked and overly-stressed mother, soaking in a bubble bath, with a large glass of wine in hand, a charcoal face mask and cucumber covered eyes, the scent of lavender essential oils wafting through the dimly lit room, acoustic tunes playing softly in the background…. Essentially, the most basic home-spa day.
“And,” I would tell myself, “who has time for that when you’re living in survival mode?!”
Now, I have nothing against people who love bubble baths. I am simply not one of those people, and the mental image of that bubble bath that would pop into my head at the mere mention of “self-care” led me to believe that I was simply not someone who required self-care in the first place. Of course, that was utterly ridiculous, which I have come to learn, but, nevertheless, that was my perspective on self-care at that time in my life.
However, the more I grew into motherhood, the more I felt my understanding of self-care mature. This happened through therapy, which itself, is a version of self-care, but also through my quest to recapture, or perhaps, re-define, my personal identity. You know the one — that version of yourself that exists outside of the “you” that is “Mom.” In my attempt to rekindle my passion for all the things that brought me joy before my life revolved around preschool and PTA, I came to realize that my personal interests and passions were intricately tied to the concept of “self-care.” Even the mere pursuit of those interests and passions was self-care!
I am now in my fourth year of medically complex parenting. My husband and I have been through a lot as we continue to grow as parents and family caregivers. I am a different person than I was before my son was born, and each year, as he grows, I, too, feel my own capacity to mother expand exponentially.
Through this, I have come to understand the value and the need for self-care as one tool in our Parenting Toolbelt that can help us to relax into our breath, reset our priorities, and remember who we are and who we want to be for our kids, our partners and ourselves.
I have come to understand that self-care does not require grand gestures. Self-care can be fleeting moments occurring throughout the day. Self-care is simply that which brings you joy — whatever that means to you.
For me, self-care is taking a moment to smell a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Self-care is a bowl of ice cream for breakfast. (Chocolate with cinnamon sprinkled on top, please.) It is a long walk with my son on a beautiful sunny day. It is a backyard BBQ with double-patty veggie burgers. It is dancing to Prince in the kitchen with my husband, visiting a new coffee shop with my mom and a phone call from my dad. Self-care is a Peloton ride. It is a solo trip to the Post Office with the windows down and the music blaring, screaming out the lyrics and smirking at the horrified looks of the poor souls in the car next to me. It is a new shade of lipstick from an Ipsy bag and a really good, hard cider. Self-care is working on projects that mean something to me. It is volunteering in my community because that is what brings me joy and fills my cup.
And, some days, self-care really is a cold glass of white wine, but in a steaming hot shower…. Because, no matter how far I have come on this mothering journey, I am still not a bubble bath kind of mom.
And that is absolutely okay.
Whitney Stohr is a Parent to Parent Coordinator at The Arc of Snohomish County. She is passionate about advocating for medically complex children and children with disabilities and their families. She is a mom and medical caregiver herself, who is energized by working closely with other parent/family caregivers. She lives with her three-year-old son Malachi and husband Jason in Lynnwood. (Article originally published in November 2021.)