Last weekend, I listened as a friend and working mama of two young boys described her experience going away on a several-day yoga retreat. The point she made that most struck me was about the effort it took to really sink into being taken care of while she was there.
In This Season of Life, We Are the Caregivers
My friend said she wasn’t used to having someone look out for her every need. Hand her a glass of water when she was thirsty. Or ask if they could get her something to eat.
I suspect many of us can relate. We are the caregivers, right? We bathe, clothe, and nourish our children. Respond to our clients, mere moments after they e-mail us. And clean bottles while planning birthday parties.
For virtually 100% of each day, we are taking care of others. And, if we’ve succeeded in making it a priority, perhaps taking care of ourselves. Yet when we need help and care – perhaps when we are sick, or post-partum, or underwater with commitments – we struggle to allow others to be caretakers for us.
Why Is It So Hard to Be Cared for?
I started pondering why it can be so hard for us to “allow” or “permit” or “let” others care for us. Is it pride? Perfectionism? Protestant work ethic? Ego? An inherent human struggle for self-determination and self-reliance? Stigma around feeling needy or helpless? A desire not to abuse privilege? Some combination of all of these things? (And do our male working colleagues also wrestle with this?)
There are periods in all of our lives, when we both need and want others to care for us. These are seasons of life when it seems socially acceptable to be cared for. I’m thinking specifically of when we humans are very young and very old. Times when we simply aren’t capable of taking care of ourselves.
Even during these times when it’s “acceptable” to be taken care of, we still seem to exert a fair amount of effort to be self-reliant. I’ll never forget a toddler I was babysitting in my teenage years screaming, “I do MYSELF!!” as I tried to help her put on her shoes. Or my grandmother’s adamant refusal to give up her car and let others drive her around.
Historically, perhaps, there have been different notions of when it’s deemed okay to be taken care of. For example, there’s the “lying in” period after having a baby. Long periods of postpartum confinement used to be the norm in many places and are still common in some cultures.
The Caring Continuum
For me, at least, a caring continuum of sorts comes to mind. On one end of the spectrum, caring for others seems normal, natural, and easy. So-called “self-care,” in which the onus is still really on me to carve out time and make taking care of myself a priority, is in the middle of the spectrum and also feels okay. (For the record, it didn’t use to. But I’ve come a long way in that department.) Letting others take care of me is all the way at the other end of the continuum, though, and still feels challenging.
Fast forward a few days from my conversation with my friend, and I found myself on a plane to my law firm’s global partner retreat. My friend’s words came back to me as I took one afternoon off to get a massage with my female colleagues and go for a swim. (Great privilege respectfully acknowledged here.)
The massage began with a “welcome ritual” of foot bathing. And during these few moments, I made a conscious decision to accept the experience wholeheartedly. I smiled as I thought of how many times I had washed my own children’s feet. And I sank into gratitude and calm, rather than fight the ritual as “feeling strange” or “being selfish” – the monologue that otherwise would have run through my head. A bit later, when I exited the pool and a hotel staff member immediately handed me a towel, I did the same. I consciously breathed into the idea that it can be nourishing to the body and soul to be taken care of from time to time.
These were baby steps for me. As I write this, I’m still struggling with what is and isn’t socially acceptable to say about being taken care of. But I’m leaning more and more into the idea that it’s a normal and healthy part of the human experience to be both the “carer” and the “caree” (to use words that don’t appear to my spellcheck to exist). If we more willingly accepted care from others – indeed, sought it out – we might burn ourselves out less frequently. And we might allow others greater joy in helping us.
Finally, I’m noticing a parallel here between care and love. For me, the same continuum seems to exist. To love others comes naturally to me. My own self-love is growing. While truly, and deeply, allowing others to love me is something I’m ever-so-slowly learning to accept.
Being cared for and being loved are such important features of being human. Not just when we are young and old, or on Mother’s Day and our birthdays, but at all times in between. I think our mental health as working mothers would benefit greatly, and our lives would be richer indeed, if we “permitted” on a grander scale the care and love that others so generously bestow upon us.
If you need more help getting your head in a better place to return to work after maternity leave, join us for the next session of Mindful Return.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.