If you haven’t yet seen The Lost Daughter, a film based on Elena Ferrante’s book, it’s chilling. My husband didn’t get it. If you are a mother—scratch that—if you are a woman, you will. Every time Leda chooses not to do what’s expected of her, i.e., accommodate others at her own expense, we fear for her life. You should watch it. The more recognition of how women are required to move through the world just to survive, the better.
To me, we have something to learn from how Leda condemns herself as a “bad mother” with such finality. Without giving anything away, young Leda makes a painful parenting choice not so common in mothers. Our perfect-mother-obsessed culture weighs heavily on her shoulders. The viewer, however, is offered the choice of whether or not to judge. Her complicated past shows that she is not just some crazy lady like the old trope would have us believe. I could totally relate to her honest portrayal of a complex, frustrated woman who truly loves her daughters.
It got me thinking about how quick we are to label ourselves and how counterproductive it is. I’ve stamped my own forehead with “bad mother” on many guild-laden occasions. Howling at my kids over being late, forcing academic choices on them over their objections, and, worst of all, ending a backseat brawl by ordering the loudest kid out of the car while I circled the block, leaving the impression that I had disappeared forever. The same thing happened to me at a young age and it abruptly ended my belief that I would always be taken care of. And I did it anyway.
I hated myself over such incidents. But did they make me a bad mother? No. I can say that now. Mothering in our culture means that any way in which your child may suffer is your burden to bear and your problem to solve. No matter who else is involved. I reject that.
In the last few years, there has been a shift. I am less prone to judge myself. I am also less reactive. It happened at the same time.
After nearly two decades of mothering, I now understand that self-flagellation doesn’t help. How we choose to conduct ourselves is not WHO WE ARE. When we confuse a well worn pattern of behavior with our identity, I am a procrastinator, I’m not a morning person, I am a bad mother, the painful label makes the behavior even more difficult to stop.* We condemn ourselves as simply that kind of person. It’s hard enough that the culture conditions us to label people good and bad. We don’t have to pile on.
In my experience, the only way to change a pattern we are troubled by is with unfailing self-acceptance. That may sound backwards. Why would you accept something in yourself that you don’t like? Because we are human and making mistakes is the best way to learn, that’s why. I love how my friend Jude does it. She says to herself, “Oh well, it’s who I am in this moment.” She doesn’t spin a harmful story about who she is, she remains present. She offers herself some grace.
My ability to exercise self-acceptance draws directly on my reserves of self-care. If I have neglected myself, forget it. Of late, I now pay attention to my needs. In our culture, it feels self-indulgent to talk about this, but I will push past it because it really is critical.
By self-care, I’m not talking about a once in a blue moon bubble bath or a stiff drink at 5:00 pm to forget the day. I mean regular, consistent attention, that sends the message that you matter. I was once a woman with decades old gym shorts. No more. The quality of my work out gear should at least be on par with my teenage daughter’s, for Pete’s sake. It really is the little things.
I currently communicate my own value to myself with small sensory delights throughout the day. Self-care looks different for all of us, but mine begins with sufficient sleep. I think it was sleep specialist, Dr. Michael Breus, who said, “sleep is the glue that holds everything together.” That refrain can be heard on a loop in my house.
When I wake up, I meditate first thing, guaranteeing that I start the day in “calmed the F down” mode. On an ideal day, I am up early enough to have time afterwards for journaling. This helps me take everything that is bothering me out of my body (it’s a lot) and lay it down on the page. Then I get out in nature and exercise.
At this point, I have not yet looked at my phone—on purpose. Ideally, I want to raise my vibe high so that no matter what happens during the day, I work off an ample reserve. The phone automatically brings you down, it’s a fact. I clean my energy, send love to all my people and express gratitude for everyone in specific ways.** To the extent possible, I dress in a color that makes me happy, light a delicious candle next to my writing space and make a warm mug of tea.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned to say no. This is new for me. If it was something optional like a social function or a volunteer opportunity, the question used to be, “should I do this?” Now it is, “do I want to do this?” No thank you has become the phrase that pays.
Alternatively, I say yes to me. I had some reading to catch up on for my program and thought I’d like to do it outside. So I packed a bag and read at the beach. No big to-do. Granted that’s not possible for all of us for myriad reasons, but we all have our own version of saying yes to ourselves.
Why is taking care of yourself so important? Self-care builds trust within you. When you are good to yourself, the knowledge that your choices directly affect your quality of life goes bone-deep. It then becomes possible to break a pattern of behavior that no longer serves you. This critical connection with yourself empowers you to mindfully choose what is good for you. The most important relationship in your life is with yourself. I have broken a great many unhealthy patterns in just this way and I feel good.
When you take the very best care of yourself, you begin to live the life you always wanted. And that’s not just “okay,” it’s fan-freaking-tastic.
WRITING PROMPT: Do you have harmful labels you’d like to let go of? What is your self-care routine? I hope you will be good to yourself today.
*I learned this concept from Mel Robbins. I strongly encourage you to check out her no BS approach to self-improvement. She loves to swear. 🙂
**Jay Shetty teaches that being specific about why we are grateful stays with us throughout the day, raises our vibration and even boosts our immune system. He suggests reaching out to the person we are grateful to and communicating exactly what they did meant to us, creating an even more valuable experience for both people.