Self-care is not enough

Self-care. There’s something about that term that makes my skin crawl. It sounds so squishy and self-involved. 

I hear it and a certain image comes to mind — kind of a cross between Gwyneth Paltrow and that “life coach” who hawks her services as yoga class lets out. 

I don’t know what my problem is. The basic premise of self-care — that we should take time away from our stressful lives to focus on ourselves for a change — sounds good to me. That whole “put on your oxygen mask first before you help others” idea makes sense. 

I can get behind that.  

But something about it just doesn’t sit right. For one thing, the term is super gendered. Seriously, when was the last time you heard some dudes commiserating about their stressful lives and discussing their urgent need for some self-care? 

That’s right — never. 

And furthermore, all the self-care solutions just seem kind of inadequate. 

“Try your hand at tai chi!” “Cook from scratch more often!” “Have a coffee date with a friend!” A quick Google search delivers list after list of “self-care strategies for busy moms,” “20 simple ways to take great care of yourself” and “four reasons why self-care is critical for working mothers to succeed.” 

In other words, these articles suggest, a healthy, happy, balanced life is within everyone’s reach — so long as you adhere to the right self-care strategies.

The expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” seems relevant here. While we frantically search for ways to keep our work obligations from bleeding into our evenings and weekends (“Turn off your phone after 7 p.m.!”), our health from deteriorating (“Focus on deep, mindful breathing during your commute!”) and our relationships from stalling (“Schedule a ‘relationship summit’ after the kids go to bed!”), we fail to see the bigger, structural problems that are screwing up our lives in the first place. 

America the Abysmal 

It’s no secret that the United States is a tough place to be a parent. If you’re inclined to disagree, I would urge you to read Brigid Schulte’s article in the Washington Post: “The U.S. ranks last in every measure when it comes to family policy, in 10 charts.”  

For example, the U.S. ranks last in government-supported time off for new parents. The U.S., in fact, is one of only three countries in the world to offer no paid maternity leave (the others are Oman and Papua New Guinea). The Family Medical Leave Act is the one family-friendly policy we can brag about. Of course, it’s restricted to workers in companies with more than 50 employees, who work full time and who have been with the firm for more than one year — effectively excluding 40 percent of the U.S. workforce. 

Other areas where the U.S. fails spectacularly include child-care assistance (none, except for those with very low incomes), vacation time (no national policy) and overtime guidelines (no bans on mandatory overtime). 

Add to this the fact that more American women are dying of pregnancy-related complications than in any other country — in fact, we’re the only nation where the maternal mortality rate has been rising — and you can see why so many of us are committing ourselves to self-care. 

We might not be able to get out of working 60-hour weeks for 40-hour pay, but, hey — maybe some meditation can soften the blow. 

Look, I’m not saying that self-care strategies are pointless. In our “every man for himself” nation, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? 

At the same time, however, I think we need to keep looking outward and make an effort to create change for the better. That might mean lobbying our workplaces for flexible scheduling, voting for people who support family-friendly initiatives and, in general, refusing to settle for a culture that’s actively hostile to families. 

We can’t fix the situation overnight. But looking ahead 20 years or so, wouldn’t it be great if we could help create a better parenting culture for our own children?    

Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to