More Forty Than Thirty: A Treatise on Self Care and [Finally] Growing Up

I have often been told (mostly by people who don’t believe in such things) that I am an old soul. I was an intelligent and obedient child, quick to finish my homework and patient about standing in line. I was not, for the most part, a problem–and so, for the most part, I was ignored.

I don’t mean that as harshly as it sounds. I was not a young Jane Eyre reading her books behind the curtains, though I often imagined myself to be. I simply didn’t require much attention. I had a loving family and sometimes I had friends. I kept myself to myself, as the British say–and as soon as I was big enough to read the classic literature of Great Britain, I found myself preferring their parlance. But unless you were my mother or father, who so frequently walked past the hovel I built in the dining room where I cloaked myself in a baby blanket and begged passers-by for alms, or my brother, who lived across the hall from the thing, you didn’t know that. You didn’t hear me narrating my own little life to make mundane tasks easier–she flung the covers across the bed, grumbling to herself at the silliness of her daily chore–and you certainly didn’t see me hiding under my stuffed animals when things were going wrong.

If you were one of my teachers or neighbors, you saw my good grades. You saw the third-grade talent show in which my friends and I lip-synced (amazingly well, I might add, and with full emotion) to “Leader of the Pack” by The Shangri-Las in matching plaid skirts that my mother made. You saw my almost aggressive attempts at socialization, which probably made me seem like a leader. You heard me say that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was my favorite movie and Diana Ross sang my favorite songs. Maybe you thought, since my tastes came from an older generation, that I was already grown.

At this point, I have to tell you: I grew up in the nineties. Born in eighty four, I am at the older end of the group we call Millennials. For a long time I scoffed at that designation, but then I’ve never liked being lumped in with other people. I didn’t like the shallow, tech-obsessed stereotype that the world wanted to pin on me. After all, I didn’t see the internet until I was ten, didn’t know how to use it until I was twelve, and then only within the bounds of AOL. I got my first cell phone at twenty, my first smart phone at twenty-five. I still don’t know how my brother downloaded all those MP3s.

I felt a crotchety sort of rebellion, my “old soul” grasping at the edges of my generation, insisting I was something else. After all, I grew up in a small town where the big satellite that fed us TV (thirteen channels in all) filled up with snow every winter and left us to be entertained by my mom’s collection of Turner Classic Movies on VHS. I can say, in all honesty, that I walked uphill in two feet of snow to get to school when I was five years old, accompanied only by my seven-year-old brother. My family was very religious at this time and I was mostly sheltered from current pop culture until we moved to the San Diego suburbs when I was eleven.

San Diego was something different. It wasn’t just a new neighborhood–it was a fairly rough one. In addition to being smart, I became smart-assed. I was thrown into a school where girls threatened to beat me up for looking at them wrong and I was called names I’d never heard before because I liked the wrong music and wore the wrong clothes. I learned when to quip and when to keep my head down. I was lucky to find friends. Where I had previously been a leader, I learned to follow. I learned what people liked to hear, what made them laugh and what made them angry. I learned to walk a line that I hadn’t previously known existed.

As far as I was concerned, I’d learned to take care of myself.

It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realized how low a bar I’d set. I’d been “taking care of myself” for years, but now that I knew what it meant to care for a child, I could see that the care I’d taken hadn’t been nearly enough.

“Taking care of myself” had meant staying out of trouble. It meant keeping everyone’s opinions of me high. It meant giving myself permission to indulge my flaws in private, where no one else had to deal with them.

Really, “taking care of myself” had meant taking care of everyone else.

I took care of everyone else, in this sense, for a long, long time.

Now I’m a mother. It’s a common plight for the modern mom to feel like she’s taking care of everyone else and not herself. In my family, I am the primary caregiver to two children, two dogs, a cat, and a husband. We also have chickens but, in a move that felt very enlightened and in the name of “self care,” I told my husband early on that they were his responsibility, that I was not willing to take on a whole extra flock of little lives.

Still, I have a lot of hearts to nurture, a lot of bellies to feed. I learned early on that I need to push for my own time, my own rights, or they will not be heard over the din of barking dogs and bawling babies. As the internet was so fond of telling me, I needed to make time for self care.

It was during this “me time” that I learned how little I knew how to take care of myself, and how little the internet was going to help me.

I took bubble baths. I watched TV and ate foods I couldn’t eat in front of my children, lest they want some for themselves. I drank wine and went to bed without washing my face. I sat alone in a room, journaling about all the things I wished I were, but wasn’t.

You see, self care is marketed to us like anything else. It’s a way to sell bath bombs and girls’ weekends and socks that say “If you can read this, bring me wine.” It’s a great racket, really, and it’s the way the world works these days: everything becomes product. An ad on Facebook and a package from Amazon. No matter how important an issue, it will be reduced to a set of items you can consume.

Self care, as I consumed it, tasted more like self pity.

Worse: the more self care I practiced, the less care I seemed to take care of everyone else. I am not particularly good at compartmentalizing, so when things got too tough, I’d sit down in front of the TV whether it was official Mommy Time or not. I’d allow myself breaks that meant screens became babysitters. I’d always believed in picking my battles but now I seemed to pick too few. Our eating habits, sleeping habits, viewing habits–all slid.

I began to look at self care from a different point of view, as if I were my own parent. I saw that I wasn’t caring so much as I was spoiling.

I saw that I’d been relying on my old soul to take care of me. I had never worked very hard to figure out what I needed because I figured on some level I already knew. But my supposed old soul wasn’t giving me things that would benefit me. It gave me sweets and cartoons and permission to swear like a sailor.

As it turns out, my soul is just as immature as I am.

But here and now, as I approach my thirty-fifth birthday, my soul and I seem to be growing up.

I know it’s not a line from Roald Dahl’s book (having scoured the text, trying to find it) but there’s a line in the movie Matilda that keeps running through my head. “At the age of four, Matilda had learned something most people don’t learn until their thirties: how to take care of herself.” That line made me laugh as a child–an obvious exaggeration!–but now I hear Danny DeVito’s narration as wisdom rather than wisecrack. The line between the two, it seems, is often nearly invisible.

The idea behind the term “self care” is sound: we all need to take breaks and relax. But we also need to nurture ourselves in more practical ways: the standard of care we give our children is the same we should be giving ourselves. In that way, I’ve started thinking of self care as self parenting. I must eat my vegetables, keep my bathroom clean, and go to bed on time. I must get exercise and fresh air. I must try new things and keep learning every day. I may have thirty minutes of screen time after I finish my daily chores. I may have ice cream for dessert if I eat all of my broccoli, but only once a week.

It’s not easy parenting me. I sometimes feel sorry for myself, blaming the world for my immaturity, all those adults who saw me as a little woman rather than the child I was. I look into my past, searching for whatever it was that gave me the even facade that I didn’t know I had until my first theatrical audition, when–though I was thisclose to fainting from fear–a girl said she had to sit next to me because I seemed the most confident person in the room. She said she wanted to absorb some of my calm.

Apparently, I am not what I seem. Apparently, I don’t have as much control over these things as I would have imagined.

Though I might never feel fully in control, some wisdom has come with age. On October 19th, the moment after I turn 35, I will officially be more forty than thirty. I will start checking a different box when I fill out forms and surveys. All those years have passed. They’re gone–I can’t get them back. I am old enough that each year that passes seems quicker, and I’d like to pump the brakes on the future instead of hastening it forward. I understand better now what it means to live one’s life to the fullest, to take advantage of the here and now. I also understand more of the repercussions of my actions, that acting like I’m okay when I’m not or trying to give a good impression doesn’t necessarily serve me.

I’m finally learning how to take care of myself.

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