I love bubble baths.
I adore long walks down the aisles of Target.
I treat myself to massages whenever the budget permits.
Self-care is a part of my life and I value its role in wellbeing for all mothers.
But self-care is not enough to fix how burnt out moms are, as Diana Spalding wrote in a viral essay for Motherly.
Because it must be your problem that you’re so tired all the time.
When society tells us that what we really need is “self-care,” they’re telling us we don’t need other things, like affordable childcare, equal pay and paid maternity leave. It’s telling us that raising children without the support of a village is our fault. It’s implying that the choice to have children lays the burden of raising the future generations entirely at our own feet. When we are fed constant refrains of “self-care,” society forgets the role that the village, the economy, political systems and our culture at large play in burning mothers out.
At its best, self-care reminds mothers that they matter, too. It tells them that prioritizing their own wellbeing doesn’t mean they’re neglecting their families. It gives mothers permission to put themselves first, if only some of the time.
At its worst, self-care culture guilt trips us for being unable to add ourselves to the massive workload of modern motherhood.
Mothers ensure their children have what they need to thrive. It’s what mothers do. They cook nutritious food and employ psychological tactics to cajole their kids into eating it. Nourishment, growth opportunities, movement, play, rest and surprise. Mothers know what it takes to help their children thrive. They pour themselves into making sure their children and happy, whole and well, in every area of their lives.
Yet how many mothers endure years of getting food on the table for their family—while no one ever stops to nourish them? How many moms strive to ensure the absolute best education for their children—while not having time for their own personal interests? How many mothers ensure that their children have playdates and get exercise, yet feel guilty for taking time for themselves? How many mothers do the invisible work of motherhood to the point of chronic burnout and mental health crises—and yet are never served by others (friends, family, partners, neighbors) with opportunities for lightness, joy and delight?
Focusing on self-care puts the burden on mothers, yet again. It lets men off the hook. It tells extended families and neighbors that they are not important in the wellbeing of the next generation. It tells communities that it’s the nuclear family’s problem. It signals to the government that no policy changes are needed.
But what if self-care wasn’t the only answer to the crisis of chronic burnout?
What if society at all levels cared?
A world where mothers thrive is a society that rejects toxic individualism, the idea of the nuclear family, the corporate male ideal, and motherhood as martyrdom. Instead, a world where mothers thrive is one where society, at every level, shows that they care, and provides care, in word and deed.
It’s groups of mom friends setting up a schedule to cook dinner and eating together to foster social connections and take the burden of cooking off one anothers’ plates.
It’s grandparents and aunts and uncles asking how they can help the family to thrive and then showing up to do the work.
It’s fathers and partners working through their unconscious bias to question their own roles. (Pro tip: Try asking to start, “How can I better support you and become a more equal partner in this family?”)
It’s removing the stigma around mental health and increasing access to affordable mental health support.
It’s schools rethinking their schedules to accommodate the realities of working parenthood.
It’s paid maternity and paternity leave for new parents. Now.
It’s flexible work for those who want it, and predictable schedules for those who need it.
It’s adoption policies that prioritize the health and healing of first families and their children.
It’s equal pay for equal work. It’s calling out retrograde ideas of work/life balance. It’s building a better workplace for all parents.
It’s each of us questioning the spoken and unspoken guilt that we feel when we prioritize ourselves over our children.
It’s showing up for mothers instead of simply telling them “you’re a superhero” and “I don’t know how you do it.”
American mothers are not well. And self-care is not the answer. Society doing the work of truly caring is the answer.