[Things my mother taught me] Part Two: the importance of self-care

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In Part One I described the most important value I’ve learned from my mom – compassion. I also touched on the necessity of not only caring for others but caring for yourself as well. Compassion towards oneself is somewhat more difficult to achieve, in my experience, but it is of critical importance. One of the most radical (and feminist) ideas my mom has instilled in me is that you must take care of yourself first. This is not selfish – it is necessary for survival, especially as a woman. As Audre Lorde put it, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” For someone like me, who plans to go into a field in which I will offer myself to others as emotional support, I have to first arrive at a place where I am physically and emotionally healthy. During my mom’s many years as a social worker (and mother) she learned this lesson well.

My mom has never been the type to sacrifice her wants and needs for anyone else, and this is something that I admire greatly. Not that she didn’t love her children or care for us properly – she is and has always been an amazing mother. But she did not forfeit her individuality or personal needs just because she became a mother. She took care of us, of course, but she also made a point to take care of herself, both physically and emotionally.

My mom was a total health-nut. My friends think I’m bad, but my mother was serious about taking care of her body, which is why her lung cancer diagnosis came as such a shock. Before her illness she was at the gym every week, exercising because it made her feel strong. In her 30s she became quite skilled at weight lifting, despite her small frame. She prided herself on her physical strength and endurance. When it came to cooking, Mom was always determined to make the most delicious, healthy food she could (which wasn’t hard because she’s an excellent cook). She knew what was good for her body and what wasn’t, and she made sure that as kids we had a healthy diet as well. From an early age I learned to love fruits and vegetables, and I still do. The example my mom set taught me I needed to take care of myself physically, eating things that made my body feel good and getting active in ways that I enjoyed. For my mom, it was weight-lifting and aerobics; for me, it’s yoga and swimming.

My mom always taught me that emotional health is equally as important as physical health – if not more. When my parents got divorced, I was very angry at first. I couldn’t imagine how she could do such a thing to her children, and I genuinely thought that my life was ruined. I thought my parents were being selfish and that they didn’t care about us. Now I understand that getting the divorce was essentially an act of self-care. Although my mom loved us more than anything, she and my dad were too miserable in their marriage to stay together. It wasn’t selfishness but emotional necessity that lead to their separation. Divorce can be a powerful way for women to prioritize themselves and declare their independence, and such was the case for my mother. I respect her decision and understand why it had to happen.

Somehow, my mom managed to find the perfect balance between caring for others and caring for herself. She loved us, her kids, unconditionally, while also managing a successful career in social work and making time to take care of herself. Let it be stated that her family has never been the most supportive of her and her endeavors. I won’t go in to detail, but she learned at an early age that she was going to have to look after herself. Since then her strength and resilience has never ceased to amaze me, as she continues to carry on even without her parents’ support. There is something deep inside of her that keeps her motivated to carry on, and I believe that this is the love she has for herself and for others.

Even as she grew sicker and sicker, she fought for better medical treatment and kept very close tabs on her health. She decided from the very beginning that she was in charge of her own health – she wasn’t just going to leave it up to the doctors. She has done everything she could possibly do to take care of herself in her sickness, and no doubt this has kept her alive longer.

As I’m writing this, I am fully realizing just how amazing my mother is for achieving this feat. Her unshakable strength in fighting her cancer stems from her desire to care for herself and to be there for those she loves. I can assure you that she has succeeded in both of these endeavors.

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