In the spirit of honesty, this month has not been the best. My family is slowly adjusting to our new routine of returning to work, school, and daycare. The transition had been going mostly well, but it was also incredibly exhausting. With the added layer of stress from COVID-19, the normal level of exhaustion from this annual school year transition has grown exponentially. Then, just two weeks into our fall schedule, my kids and I came down with head colds. Since this year is unique, our lives went on hold as we quarantined, awaiting the results of our COVID-19 tests. Since I tend to overworry, I spent this time at home dissecting everything from the order of our symptoms to the color of our toes (which the internet told me was a sign of COVID), while we waited to hear if the cause of our symptoms would impact everyone at our schools and daycare. To add to this, a simple trip to our deep freezer in the basement to take out a frozen pizza revealed that our freezer had stopped working. Hundreds of dollars of stocked up Costco food was ruined, creating a defrosted disgusting disaster. Anyway, it’s fine. Except, it’s not really. But it is real. All of these layers of stress caused me to reflect on self-care, specifically the difference between productive self-care and the habits I tend to fall on when things are, clearly, not fine.
If I were to write a list of things that I do for self-care, things I do just for me and that help me feel better, stay balanced in my emotions, and stay grounded, my list would look something like this: reading, writing, journaling, spending time in devotions and prayer, running, talking with friends, and tending my little garden. Reviewing this list makes me smile because I know that these things fill my bucket, they bring me joy.
The problem with this list is that it doesn’t necessarily match reality. For example, if I were to write a list of things that I have done during this season of stress, it would look something like this: binge Netflix, eat chocolate and popcorn, lay in my bed under all the covers, endlessly scroll social media, and cry. When I review this list, I am not filled with joy. In fact, I am certain that every item on this list literally sucks joy out of my life (except for the blankets on my bed, I love them). But, it is real. Currently, my little garden is nearly dead with approximately one million weeds climbing around my overgrown tomato plant. My fitbit buzzes nearly every hour to remind me that I am woefully behind on my daily steps goal. And then there’s social media, which only adds to my stress with newsfeeds full of divisive politics, COVID anxiety, and heartbreaking violence.
Why is it that the things I know bring me back to a better place are the first things to go when I need them the most. The day that I should lace up my running shoes and let the anxiety roll out on the pavement is the day that I curl up under a blanket and start a different kind of marathon (thanks, Netflix). The day that I should rest assured that God is still in control, is the same day that my Bible lays untouched due to sheer exhaustion. The fact that I naturally gravitate toward draining activities, rather than productive ones, feels absurd.
So, what to do? Well, I clearly do not have all of the answers, I did just admit my garden is dying due to my inability to handle stress. However, here are a couple of gentle reminders to consider. Every month I spend some time thinking about my intentions for the month. During this season of COVID, my intentions have almost entirely focused on self-care. I have written down small things that I can do daily, weekly or monthly (many of which mirror the self-care list I wrote at the beginning of this post). I have found this to be a helpful method to stay focused on the things that are productive, a small way to stay on track towards taking better care of myself, even in the mundane of the day-to-day. The visual intention reminds me of the positive things that I can do, at least in theory, even on days when I can’t think past the exhaustion caused by increased stress. Even in months like this one, I do find myself making beneficial choices here and there, simply because I told myself I would, because I wrote it down. That seems to make a difference in encouraging accountability.
However, even with the written intentions encouraging self-care, some months I just don’t stay focused. I don’t write, I don’t read, and I spend more time isolating than I do engaging. It’s frustrating but it’s reality. I am certain that even if I wrote on giant poster boards, “REMEMBER TO DO THE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY!!!” and hung one in every room in my house, I would still find a way to sneak under the covers with Netflix on my phone. So, I find myself at a bit of a crossroads. I can add an unhealthy dose of guilt to my already unproductive habits or I can accept reality. I can show myself some self-compassion and a healthy dose of grace. Choosing this version of acceptance seems to make the most sense. The reality is, maybe I won’t always have the best self-care when I am in transition, when there is a defrosted disaster in my freezer, or when I am quarantining in my house with a cold. The good news is, some months will be better, and I will do the self-care things that bring me joy. So, in the same spirit of honesty, I cannot wait to start a new month, where I have a new opportunity to work at ensuring my self-care isn’t the first thing to go.
Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.