When my best friend had her first son, I was still a few years away from becoming a mom. She was the first person my age, who I really knew, to have a baby. I went over to her apartment armed with gifts: a bunch of onesies I now understand she didn’t need, and books for her son that he wouldn’t read for two or three years, but hey, what did I know? I came in and washed my hands without even being asked, so I figured I had this whole baby thing figured out.
My friend was exhausted. She and her husband hadn’t really slept since before the baby was born. Laundry was everywhere and dishes covered every surface that wasn’t occupied by laundry. My friend couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a shower. I rolled up my sleeves, trying to decide where to dig in. A timer went off. “Let me get it,” I offered, picking up an empty laundry basket. “No,” she stopped me. “I’ve got it.”
She disappeared into the tiny alcove of a kitchen and, in the time it took me to fold two or three tiny, adorable baby shirts, reemerged carrying a plate of cookies. Freshly baked cookies. She brought us both coffee and motioned for me to join her at the tiny table. “You made cookies?” She nodded sleepily. “From scratch?” I asked incredulously, looking around at the unwashed dishes and unfolded clothes. Again, she nodded, but this time, looking pleased.
I took a bite of a delicious cookie. And then: “I have to ask... why?” My dear, wise friend smiled patiently at me. “Baking makes me feel like myself.”
I didn’t understand. “In the past few weeks,” she continued, “almost everything about my life--about my world-- has changed. But for the 20 minutes it took me to make those cookies...” she trailed off, but again I saw a hint of that pleased smile. We sipped our coffee and had a few more cookies before the baby woke from his all-too-brief nap, looking to nurse for the 80th time that day.
I visited this family many, many times in the next year before they moved away, and whenever I was there, I’d hold the baby so she could shower, or contribute to the sisyphean task of folding laundry, and my friend would feed me amazing, homemade food. “It just makes me feel like myself,” she would say.
Cut to three years later, and I was a few months into motherhood with my own daughter. My husband and I soon saw how the dishes and the laundry can pile up, and how we would learn not to care about it at all.
I had made a pledge to myself, a former self-care junkie, that I would shower every day after becoming a stay-at-home mom, even when it seemed unnecessary, and while some days it seemed epically difficult, I stuck to that. I got out of the house daily, rain or shine, at the advice of my therapist, nursed my daughter constantly, cried a lot, but generally thought I was doing an okay job of taking care of myself. Then, looking through photos one late night, waiting up to do a midnight “dream feed” before crashing into bed for 5 or 6 hours (hopefully!) of sleep, I realized I didn’t recognize myself. It was as much a literal lack of recognition as it was a metaphorical one. In addition to seeing, as my friend had said years before, that my life looked completely different in almost every way, I truly looked different.
I hadn’t worn makeup since the birth of our daughter. Who had the time? Why did I need to wear lipstick to pace around the block with the stroller? I didn’t want to get lip gloss on the baby’s pristine skin when I kissed her compulsively, and, in the bigger picture, what kind of message was I sending to my daughter if I wore makeup? Suddenly, I felt like everything I did was informing her perception of the world, and if I placed value on my appearance, what was I teaching her?
Aside from the fact that she was all of 7 or 8 weeks old at this point, I realized like a bolt of lightening that this line of reasoning was as easy to puncture as a balloon. What kind of message was I sending by NOT wearing makeup? I had worn-- and loved-- makeup since I was 13. It was part of me. It made me happy. It made me feel like myself.
And suddenly, I remembered my dear friend, baking cookies. Because they made her feel like herself.
I started wearing makeup again the next day. It took a little extra time in the morning, but I saw myself smile in the mirror and it felt right. My lip gloss did get on the baby, so I invested in organic makeup. Some days, no one saw me besides my husband and daughter, but I still felt like it was a good use of blush. I could throw on a sweatshirt and jeans and still look kind of put-together, because a little mascara goes a long way towards being polished.
For me, it’s make-up. For some moms, it’s baking. Or riding motorcycles, or spelunking, drinking wine, or driving the crosstown bus. Whatever it is for you, find a way to go do it occasionally.
If your world has recently turned upside down in the best way, and yet you’re still not sure what it is that makes you feel like you, may I suggest a swipe of bold, red lipstick? Or just a coat of mascara. You never know-- it’s a pretty easy, cheap way to feel like you’re doing a little something for yourself, and it just might make you feel like you.