Why should I Care? On bridging the gap between Self-Care and Societal Care

I have noticed a distinct difference between those in my community who are healers, practitioners and nurturing personalities who advocate Self Care, and those in my community who are more connected to practical, political and legislative solutions to the problems of the world, an emphasis on what I will call Societal Care. There is an unfortunate and false dichotomy that often arises between the priorities of these two communities, and I am on a mission to advocate for a more intentional collaboration between Self Care and Societal Care.

As a yoga therapist, it is in my training and scope of practice to advise on Self Care, but when clients or students are in a demographic of marginalized people that more deeply experience societal or structural inequity, Societal Care is also a fundamental part of the strategy for symptom relief.

The group of marginalized people whose struggles I know most intimately are mothers living in the United States. While I am aware that many mothers in the United States live very privileged lives, the fact remains that the gender pay gap is significantly higher for mothers than it is for childless women, and mothers of all socio-economic backgrounds experience less time for themselves than their male counterparts. Many of the extreme stressors mothers are facing are unique to the United States, which is the only country in the world that has neglected to insure paid maternity leave for its mothers, and one of the only industrialized countries that has no policy in place to make quality childcare affordable to all. There is also a significant cultural stigma that mothers here face. While many other cultures believe it is the job of the community to raise children, American culture puts immense pressure specifically on mothers to meet an unattainable ideal of perfection in parenting and keep their kids behaving well in all public spheres. I have seen this pressure internalized in many of the mothers I have known or worked with, who are plagued by guilt and regularly use the phrase I’m a bad mom, or more jokingly use the hashtag #badmom as a way of punctuating their parenting anecdotes on social media. Motherhood has become the ultimate test of American Individualism.

It is because of this framework that I find the concept of Self-Care to be delicate, and a potential trigger for a host of self-critical thoughts in the mother community. Knowing how to take care of yourself does not replace the basic human need to live in a society that knows how to take care of its members, particularly its most vulnerable citizens, which postnatal women and their infants certainly are. Furthermore, knowing how to take care of yourself is of little use if you never have the time or resources to do it. When I teach Self-Care, I want to make sure my clients and students understand this larger framework and do not feel guilty or like they are failing when they fall behind on Self-Care. I want them to know that Self-Care does not exist in an isolated bubble”other people must provide support for it to occur, and the Selves who are entitled to this care must demand that support.

I’ll give you an example of the way that Self Care can sometimes be misused as an escape from the more difficult and complicated conversation of Societal Care. The other day I saw a comment on a local Facebook group for mothers, where the poster shared how much she is struggling to keep up with the demands of working full-time, caring for her infant and toddler, the daycare drop-off and pick-ups, the suffocating cost of childcare, the chaos of trying to do dinner and bedtimes for everyone after getting home from a long work day and the exhaustion of having no alone time before dropping into bed and doing it all over again the next day. Many of the mothers who responded to the post were sympathetic, having been in the same circumstances. Many of them tried to be helpful by suggesting that perhaps she could find a daycare that is open later or closer to home, and I was surprised to see several people recommend that she start taking Vitamin D supplements.

I am not an expert on nutrition, but I can assure you that Vitamin D deficiency is not the root cause of this woman’s stress. The situation she was suffering through could rightly be described as a public health epidemic, a host of systemic issues that are causing unbearable levels of stress on countless families across the United States.

Most cultures would find the conditions this mom described to be inhumane, unhealthy and untenable, and have already developed policies and entitlements to support families in the early years of childhood. In other words, the solutions to these problems are well known and well documented, and have nothing to do with Vitamin D, so why are we not talking about them?

My goal in teaching Self-Care to moms is that they feel empowered in body, mind and spirit, and that this empowerment turns into action that will erode the current and unacceptable status quo, one mother at a time.  I think mothers should feel entitled to a life that includes the resources to care for their families well, and care for themselves well too. That we have accepted these two as being mutually exclusive is merely another American myth.

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