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First person

Is self-care just a stick to beat us with?



Lucie Corcoran reframes the idea of self-care through the lens of her newest prized possession…


My husband recently dug a ten-year-old kindle out of a press and I think I’m in love.  With the kindle. I’m also tremendously fond of my husband. But the kindle, it’s a game changer. Let me explain why I’m only figuring this out.

I saw a comment doing the rounds on TikTok recently to the effect of, “I can’t stand these women who make being a mother their personality”. Well, I find that I now preface everything I say with, “since having a baby….” But seriously, after having a baby, I was continually prevented from reading. My son was almost ten months and still napping on me all the time.  We were bed sharing despite my (poor) effort at sleep training.  I liked the cuddly aspect of this but it meant that I couldn’t casually leaf through newspapers or books without disturbing his slumber. While he was sleeping I was generally bet into instagram, whatsapp, Wordle, a podcast, TikTok, or some kind of shopping website. I don’t love reading on my phone. I do it sometimes of course, but I’m very easily distracted by all of the apps listed above.   And like many other people, my relationship with my phone is complicated. Sometimes I want to put it away forever and go back to the days of the telegram.

Reading for pleasure is a real source of relaxation and comfort.  For me, carving out time for reading is a genuine act of (dare I say it) #selfcare – a word that is bandied around a lot these days.  Once I got my hands on the Kindle I was able to read in a less distracted manner even when I was nap-trapped.  The first book I downloaded was ‘Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times,’ by Katherine May.  May writes about the need to endure life’s hardships in a way that allows us to rest and recuperate.  We need to slow down and take care of ourselves; nourish ourselves, get sufficient sleep, and take fresh air.  Look after ourselves as though we are the “favoured child”.

This got me thinking.  Do we know how to look after ourselves sufficiently?  It seems wintering in May’s terms runs counter to much of our culture, which is often about productivity, perfection, achievement, and strength.  The word resilience is also frequently thrown around, but this has connotations of an ability to ‘bounce back’ or weather the storm in robust manner.  Why do we find it so hard to be gentle with each other, and more importantly ourselves?  I asked a couple of friends what they do for self-care every day or most days.  They talked about creative outlets, exercise, and reflection.

There seems to be an instagrammable version of this self-care phenomenon that is aspirational; an aesthetically beautiful, trendy, filtered reality.  I asked Dr Emma Farrell, who is a mental health researcher based in UCD, how she sees this idea of self-care manifesting in society.  She suggested that self-care has now become “something we do for ourselves as individuals.”  She sees it as a thing that is intertwined with our individualistic culture and neo-liberal capitalism.  We are valued on the basis of our production capacity.  Farrell describes how the messaging around self-care really tells us: “Do not get unwell”.  Moreover, if we do “get unwell”, this is often deemed to be because we have not taken adequate self-care.  So often this notion is reduced to eating more vegetables, getting enough sleep, and doing 10,000 steps.  Farrell questions the effectiveness of such advice for the person who is socially isolated, impoverished, or living in unsafe accommodation.  Can such a person eat and sleep and move her way to excellent physical and mental health?

Farrell believes that we are being nudged more and more to see rest and care as something to be earned.  Indeed, Katherine May highlights this when she describes the dilemma of whether to go on holiday during her sick leave.  God forbid someone should see her enjoying leisure when she’s supposed to be unwell.  Farrell describes how taking rest “is going against the grain” and poses a further question – “Who is this self-care for? Because it doesn’t seem to be for me!” Furthermore, she questions why social policy reflects such little value for care.  Consider for a moment the lack of reward and regard for many of the caring roles in our society; those who mind children or the elderly or infirm.  So, what do we do when society fails to care for us?  Perhaps for now, the best we can do is to care for ourselves as we would the favoured child.  Dr Farrell left me with a wonderful line from the great John O’Donohue in ‘For One Who is Exhausted’ where he instructs the reader “Be excessively gentle with yourself.”

Katherine May’s beautiful examination of wintering helped me to reframe how I think about caring for myself on the good and the bad days.  I know there will be wintery days to come.  I feel I need to truly take care of myself in good times and in bad.  This must mean more than striving for a goal weight and drinking two litres of water every day.  I’ll slow down. I’ll nurture myself.  I’ll enjoy my baby while he is my baby.  I’ll try not to worry about all of the tasks I fail to complete.  The dratted messy kitchen and piles of laundry.  The world can wait. I’ll read. I’ll rest. God bless this kindle.