I put myself first. On my to-do list. On my priority list. In my life.
I was not taught to do this. I did not learn it in my home of origin or by watching women around me. In fact, that opposite is something we perhaps unconsciously preach to one another on a daily basis.
We laugh about the idea of “self-care,” or struggle to “make it happen on occasion” utilizing that language to help ourselves justify creating time for our own enrichment. We put ourselves last in line, if we put ourselves there at all, and at every turn this is affirmed for us. As though giving ourselves to everyone else at all times is the only option, or at least the only one that is valuable.
We are here to serve others, the narrative goes, and never ourselves.
Not only do I find this narrative limiting, I believe it is dangerous. We work ourselves to complete exhaustion, many of us ending our days completely drained, emotionally and physically, by other people’s needs. Telling ourselves that maybe tomorrow is the day we’ll spare a moment to treat ourselves to a short walk or some time alone, instead using caffeine as the sole “pick-me-up” to get through another day or act of service.
This is a particularly powerful pull on mothers, as your children are to be your top priority at all times. We derive our value and our identity from that story. Our hearts tug us there in every waking hour.
I remember telling myself I wouldn’t be “that kind of Mom.” That the guilt of autonomy wouldn’t affect me. But somehow a mound of guilt sidled itself right up on my shoulders in the delivery room, like an unfortunate gift with purchase to which I didn’t agree.
I felt like a jerk each time I dropped my kid off with a sitter “just” so I could be alone. I felt like a horrible person if she cried when I walked out of the gym’s childcare area. I even felt bad putting her in her crib so I could pee alone.
But all of that changed for me with one monumental shift in my thinking. On one such drop off, as I walked away from my child and toward myself I wondered what I was teaching her. Something I am constantly asking myself about my own behavior with regard to her. For a second I sat with that irrational feeling that perhaps I was teaching her that she didn’t matter to me. Which makes no sense as such an enormous amount of my time and energy is invested in my child. And then it struck me.
I was teaching my child that I mattered in my own life. And by my own example, I was also teaching her that she would always matter in hers.
I put myself first because I know myself well. Like most women I know, I will drop everything if I’m really needed. I will fit things into my day that I hadn’t planned for, just to make someone else’s life more convenient. I will never really abandon my child or anyone in my life, nor will I get to the end of the day and decide that I can’t handle the basic needs I tend to be responsible for in my family. I will always pull myself together to show up for others. It’s as much who I was trained to be as it is who I am. So I come first. Everyday. I put myself on the top of the list so that I am taken care of.
Some days that looks like making sure my space feels clean and spacious. Most days that includes movement. Often it’s coveted time alone.
I don’t think of this time as a chore, a necessary evil to keep me running like a well-oiled machine, or a luxury I have to earn. It is the most basic way I can communicate to myself and to the world that I know I’m valuable. I deserve it simply because I’m a person worthy of great care. And it comes first, before the needs of others even begin to arrive at my door. I like to call it “queen shit.” The luxurious care I give myself.
The amazing bonus is that my daughter is watching. She watches my every move. She knows she is loved, and she knows I am loved by me. She knows she is cared for and that she deserves her own care. I won’t always be here to take care of her, but I hope by my example she will learn to always provide herself with care.
It’s a simple but profound shift in thinking, and you don’t have to have a child to be teaching. We are always teaching. All of us. Just as the women around me unconsciously compete to be the busiest and affirm martyrdom, one woman’s care for herself gives permission to all the women around her.
The narrative that we don’t matter in our own lives is tired and slowly leaving us shells of the whole people we deserve to be. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take care of others, if that is a part of your life and identity. It means that it’s time to put yourself on your list. And if I may be so bold to assert, you belong at the top of it. Not because it will make you of better service to others, but because you deserve great care.
If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.
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