I recently went to my first “parent-teacher” meeting at daycare – my daughter is four. It went something like this:
Teacher: “Your daughter shows so much empathy, it’s really amazing! Not a lot of kids her age are able to empathize in the same way. She even helps resolve disputes between her friends. Other kids go to her when they are upset and she really helps them.”
Me: “Oh that’s wonderful!” [My inside voice is shouting with pride – we need more empathy in the world! That’s my kid! Way to go!]
Teacher: “Sometimes, this level of empathy can be a bit hard on her. When other kids are hurt, upset, or angry, she really takes it on because she wants to help them so much. She often thinks she has caused it. But we really try to teach the kids that they aren’t responsible for everyone else’s feelings or wellbeing all of the time. It’s important to be considerate of others but they need to take care of themselves first.”
Me: *blink* *blink* *pause* “Yes, of course. “
*pause* “I see what you mean. “
*blink* *blink* “It’s a balance. Yes… hmmm.”
I think this is what they call the “a-ha moment.” At this point I’m not sure if the daycare teacher is talking about my daughter, me, or perhaps my own mom. I leave there profoundly thoughtful about her comments.
What is it about this balance between empathy and self-care that seems to really hit home for me?
I grew up in a household full of caring and love. My mom gave us her whole self – physically and emotionally – and then she dug deep and gave us even more. We didn’t grow up with wealth, or lots of stuff; we grew up knowing that we always had someone in our corner. I think of my mom, three and a half decades ago, caring for three children under three, and I can picture the shear insanity of it all. I am the third of those three kids and I now have two of my own; I have seriously questioned my parents’ sanity in having me! I know that she didn’t take any time for herself, that she gave us everything that she had. While I am eternally grateful for all that she gave us, I also see that there are regrets; things that she didn’t do, friends that she lost touch with, forgone adventures.
Fast forward three and a half decades to the present day where I feel stretched between being present for my young family, pursuing a career, and caring for that same mother, who is now aging and injured. I have felt pulled into the vortex of giving and empathy, which I have always considered honourable pursuits, while neglecting to take care of myself. One more walk to the park, one more trip to the hospital, one more document to edit. I find joy in all of these things, in their own way, but the problem is that after a time, putting everyone else’s needs first leaves me depleted.
When the daycare teacher told me that they teach the kids that it’s important to take care of themselves first, my gut reaction was, “No! That’s selfish!” When I pushed that thought a little further, I reasoned, “You can’t take care of yourself first. It doesn’t work that way. There would be anarchy and bedlam!” (That last bit felt a little dramatic, but only a little bit).
What would happen if I started to reclaim a little bit of time for me?
To soak in the bath with a book instead of having a three minute shower. To read a book before bed instead of always pulling out my work computer. To get some exercise instead of scrubbing the toilet.
What has slowly started percolating my consciousness was the truth that we DO need to take care of ourselves. I have heard many times that we need to put ourselves first sometimes, to practice self-care, so that we are better equipped to be mothers, daughters, colleagues, bosses and queens of the universe.
And so, I have started reclaiming some time for myself through a little exercise, reading, and long baths after bedtime and I can honestly say that the world has not imploded. I would even go so far as to say that my family and friends have benefited from this self-care. I’m more patient. I’m happier. I even still show a healthy dose of empathy.
I know that the best way I can teach my kids anything is through modelling healthy behaviour. I hope that by reclaiming a little of me, I can show my kids that you can both care for yourself and be sensitive to others and their needs.
We can learn together how to strike the balance between self-care and empathy.
Elle Dee is mom to a toddler and a big kid, partner to an amazing guy and manager at an environmental consulting company. She has not found the mythical work life balance yet but knows the cure to any shitty day is a serious round of giggles and kitchen dance parties.
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