Welcome to the Tyranny of Self-Care

“Self-care is taking care of my own energy level.” Said Leah Ruppanner, Author of Motherlands and Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne. It’s a powerful definition and rallying cry to disrupt how we think about it. She added, “I’m trying to resist how the wellness industry defines self-care, where I have to do yoga and become thin. I reject that model of self-care but sometimes, find it very seductive, because it’s simple solutions for complex problems.”

Audre Lorde, who coined the term described it as an “act of self-preservation.” So, it’s ironic that self-care has become a source of inner conflict. Because it’s often conflated with pampering, some feel pressured by it.

But what if we measure our downtime by how rested we are instead of how much we get done? We live busy and in the pandemic, it’s unrealistic not to be. But powering through without some form of self-care leads to burnout.

Time Is More Fragmented Than Ever

Sheltered with family 24/7 makes this more challenging. “What I have found in this pandemic, is that my work requires concentrated, uninterrupted time. And my child requires instruction and constant contact throughout the day, when problems develop for her,” Leah said. A common refrain from parents juggling home school. She added, “And this is one microcosm of what happens in women’s lives always!” Exactly.

Parents surveyed* about the pandemic, overwhelmingly (76%) report doing ‘terribly’ or ‘not as well as usual’ as caregivers to themselves.But how can we change self-care when our discretionary time is so limited and interruptible?

Embrace Unapologetic, Reverence for the Recharge

To balance the intensity of work and distant learning, Leah resets on the weekends. She said, “On Saturdays I do literally nothing but watch television and read books. The house is a mess and there are dishes everywhere. And there are moments, it stresses me out but I don’t care because the weekend has to be a recharging moment or I can’t be at my best.” Beautiful! “I manage my energy levels so that I can be prepared on Monday to be as productive and as sharp in my thinking as I can. A key component of self-care for me is not giving a shit,” she added. Amen! Making the space is often complicated by misplaced guilt.

Dial Down All the Guilt

Leah said, “Although there are moments with pangs of guilt, I now reject that voice and can spend the whole day laying on the couch watching television. I try to not get stuck in any of the guilt or anxiety around my messy home or failing my child. And that means my child is almost always doing whatever she wants, which may include playing video games, making Tik Tok videos or developing her Instagram career.”

Self-care is enjoying the gift of time without the list of ‘shoulds’ winding their way through our heads. She added, “I also feel the weekend is time for my kid to be with her father. I have her during the week, so that’s their time together and my time to be alone. During their time together, if they want to play video games, I don’t care.” The path to self-care time, if partnered, is to share the responsibilities.

Which Brings Down the Mental Load

Leah said, “This is where the mental load is so damaging to women. There is this constant inner-interruption going on as you’re concentrating on something.” Sigh. “When it’s how to build your career, think about the next move or position yourself professionally, maybe those are positive. But if your interruptions are worries about whether your child’s going to be disadvantaged in the future, because you failed to create neural synapses at exactly the moment in time your child is developing them, that is incredibly draining.” Indeed, the mental load tied to school at home outcomes is a new source of persistent stress. And quiet time to think is scarce in lockdown. But there are ways to make time for self-care even if it’s not the same as pre-Covid.

And Always, Choose Your Own Adventure

Leah said, “I also get a massage every two weeks and have no guilt about it.” She blocks the space for it on her work calendar, “I say, I can’t be with you at that time I have a doctor’s appointment.” Brilliant! Seeing a doctor when we’re not feeling well isn’t more important than taking proactive steps to be healthy!

Self-care is not one thing, it’s everything we do for our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. And if you reframe how you think about it, then you’re free to enjoy some version of it during the pandemic. That’s right, it can be done. Not the luxurious self-care picture the wellness industry paints but gulps of air. Breaks in the action. Spaces in between being on for work and family. It’s okay to want that because we all need it and benefit from it. As do our families.


*Over 1,200 parents have participated in the pandemic study since March. Share your experiences of how life has changed during social distance, it’s quick and the results from this study will be used to advocate better support for parents.

Your employer can use data to help you at work! Your HR, Diversity and Parent Group Leaders can set up a chat to learn more.

Thank you to the talented Leah Ruppanner!

Please enjoy part one, from our interview, The States with the Most Childcare Sanity Will Surprise You and check out Leah’s new book, Motherlands. How States Push Mothers Out of Employment. You can follow Leah’s great adventure on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Leah Ruppanner is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the Codirector of the Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne. She is also a Fellow at the ARC Centre for Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course and an international collaborator in the Social Policy and Family Dynamics of Europe program at Stockholm University.

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