My son was born by emergency C-section with a cord triple-wrapped around his neck. He arrived during a maelstrom of miscarriages, three before and three after his birth. In the same few years, I had surgeries to remove an adrenal tumor, my gall bladder, fibroid tumors and eventually my uterus.
During this time, I wasn’t interested in self-care so much as sheer survival. Even though we were a nuclear family with one child and an excellent support system, a good day during my son’s early years meant wearing the shirt with the least breast milk on it and brushing my teeth every other day.
In addition to learning how to keep a tiny person alive, the week he was born was spent accepting my first regular writing gig after relinquishing a full-time job. So survival also meant completing my deadlines so I could stay out of jail or wherever they throw you when your book review is late and you’re trying to decide which utility to keep this month.
I think of those first few years as being deep in the trenches, dodging enemy fire and projectile diarrhea. They were also precious, sweet, beautiful, fat-baby-with-milk-breath years, but my own level of personal self-care? Ha. Forget about it. I found myself slipping into a hazy mom-jean mode of the mind and body where I could no longer find the self I’d once known in my inner life or in the mirror.
It became apparent somewhere along the line that I had to start taking care of not only my son’s wants and needs, but my own — a statement that can still feel revolutionary and selfish and risky and shot true with truth, written down.
Luckily I’m also an alcoholic and the resulting recovery groups I attend remind me that when the plane’s going down I have to put the oxygen mask on myself first. I have had to learn to focus on my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health frequently or this whole family unit is going to nose dive, crash land and burst into flames.
But what does taking care of myself mean exactly? It’s been a gradual process of discovery. At first I thought it meant eating as many donuts as I want while getting a mani/pedi — and it can mean that — but it’s deeper and bigger, too.
It’s repeatedly asking this one radical question posed to me by a wise friend: “What’s the most loving thing I can do for myself right now?” The answer varies wildly from a hot bath to journaling to going on a retreat to praying to stopping to breathe to asking for help. The answer always comes, if I’m patient enough to listen.
Re-reading a journal from a few years ago, I found a letter I’d written to my son, who at the age of 8 had accused me of being more of a person than a parent. I found his comment both heartbreaking and affirming — both then and now.
Of course I think most mothers strive to be both — but God forbid your child notices! “I have wanted you my entire life — more than you could ever know,” I wrote to him in my journal. “My deepest hope is that I can help you learn how to become fully and completely yourself by becoming fully and completely myself.”
I’d rather show him the importance of living a big, beautiful, creative life through the power of example than by the power of breathing down his neck and telling him what to do.
As I integrate self-care more fully into my life, I hope to pass on to him a blueprint of how to take the best possible care of himself — whether or not he becomes a parent one day, too.
The founder and co-director of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard leads workshops and retreats for adults around Virginia. She founded www.lifein10minutes.com in January 2015 as a flash creative-nonfiction outlet for writers of every background and level of experience. The recipient of a 2014 Theresa Pollak Prize and a 2015 Style Weekly Women in the Arts Award, she lives in the house she grew up in with her husband, cat, dog and brilliant 10-year-old son.