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How Can Moms Take Care of Themselves at This Time?

May 6, 2020 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

By Elizabeth Berger, MD

What I would like to highlight is the idea that the way the question is posed is itself a window into the problem women face. The problem is that all of us—men and women—accept without examination the idea that a woman’s fundamental function on earth is to take care of others. Anything a women does to “take care of herself” is an added extra—permitted, in small doses, but only to the degree that the job of taking care of others has already been fulfilled. We all accept this as part of reality, rather than a choice that society has made—a choice that an individual woman can go along with—either with joy, with ambivalence, with resignation, with panic, or on occasion perhaps with refusal. No one would pose the question, “How can Dads take care of themselves at this time?” That question is absurd! No one perceives Dad as torn between taking care of others and taking care of himself. This does not mean that Dads aren’t hardworking and self-sacrificing and often heroic. But it does suggest that Dads are seen as coherent human beings with a natural right to find a balance between work and play, between service to others and simple personal enjoyment. But Moms are always in conflict with themselves. They are “naturally” torn between taking care of others and finding an opportunity to take care of themselves. It is assumed that Dad already knows how to take care of himself and that Mom takes pretty good care of him too. That’s her job! But apparently no Mom knows how to take care of herself. She needs an expert to tell her and, importantly, to give her permission. She needs bullet points and advice that emphasize how Moms won’t be able to take care of others properly unless they somehow find a way to take care of themselves. For Moms to take care of themselves, it has to be twisted around so that taking care of yourself is actually an aspect of taking care of others!

Moms don’t “take care of themselves” because this is not how society works.

Moms can take care of themselves by becoming aware of why this is an issue, recognizing that “taking care of themselves” is defined as something that is OK for Mom to do once everyone else has been taken care of. It is defined as something to do with those left-over moments around the margins. It is defined in terms of the entitlement of all those who are not Mom to have Mom take care of them first—before she takes a long hot bath reading her favorite book with a pretty scented candle burning away the hours.

The problem is that a woman’s fundamental function as caretaker is built into society at every level and it is built into the brains of every man, woman, and child who lives in this society. It is not the fault of individual Dads who don’t feel obligated to wash and put away the laundry and the dirty dishes before they are entitled to collapse in front of the TV. No man thinks that way, of course—although every woman thinks this way.  It is not the fault of teenagers who count on Mom to keep it all running smoothly. It is not the fault of Moms who feel obligated to take care of the family’s needs before taking care of themselves. It is everyone’s fault because we all accept this system as if it were actually built into reality rather than a social problem.

The best thing that Mom can do, then, is to recognize that the tension between taking care of others and taking care of herself is not a problem caused by her personal neurotic martyrdom or her husband’s personal laziness or her children’s personal self-centeredness. The entire world participates in this tension. We are all in this jam. This is a social problem. Recognizing that this is a social problem means that fixing it is going to take resources that no individual Mom can summon.

Recognizing that we are all in this jam helps Moms take care of themselves. It explains why it is so hard to tear oneself away from taking care of everyone else and take care of yourself. It makes sense of the guilt over the clean laundry in the dryer and the resentment of Dads who are sitting there watching TV. That already feels better, right there.

About the author: Elizabeth Berger MD is a child psychiatrist, author of Raising Kids with Character  (http://elizabethbergermd.com/), mother of two, and grandmother of four.

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