Not all baths & candles: the difficult work of self-care

Adult Achievements stickers

These ‘Adult Achievements’ stickers arrived in the post on Thursday, a belated birthday gift from a friend.  Everyone who has seen them has smiled at their tongue-in-cheek humour.  Accompanying the smiles is a wry sense of acknowledgment, recognition that sometimes we want a sticker or a gold star or a house point to reward our adult achievements.  Why?  Because adulting is so much harder than we ever imagined as children.  We don’t envision ourselves doing the dishes, wiping the surfaces, emptying the bins.  All we could see was the promise of freedom, allowing us to stop up late and eat what we want to and not have to do homework ever again.

Of course our first taste of adulthood often does involve stopping up late, eating what we want to and not doing our homework.  Then one day, seemingly all of a sudden, we realise that our teenage cousin definitely does not consider us as one of their peers.  The toddler about to run into us is told to ‘Mind the lady’.  Seeing our friends involves prior arrangement, often months in advance, rather than being something that just happened because it was Friday or Saturday night.

Now we are the Grown Ups.

We do the dishes, wipe the surfaces, empty the bins.  We look after ourselves.  At the same time we may also look after older people, little people, furry people (well, not people, but you know what I mean).

We do more dishes, wipe the surfaces again, empty the bins once more.  We do the same the next day, and the one after.  Sometimes this brings us deep joy; we see the love and connection and grace intertwined in the mundane chores of everyday life.  More often it just feels demanding, relentless even, requiring us to show up minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.

Still doing the dishes, wiping the surfaces, emptying the bins – and all the other tasks like them – are straightforward compared to the work of emotional and spiritual self-care.

Many would have you believe that self-care is simply a matter of hot baths and scented candles.  If effing only!  I have flowers on the table pretty much every week and whilst it is a treat that I treasure, the sight of roses only marginally offsets the painful process of truly growing up.

Parents die.  Career hopes fade.  Marriages fail.  Babies don’t come along on the schedule we’d planned.  The dream home remains just that, a dream.  Even seeming to have it all doesn’t inoculate us against doubt, despair, depression.

In these situations, hot baths and scented candles are as effective as trying to disguise St. Paul’s Cathedral by putting a bobble hat on it (thanks to the late, great Victoria Wood for that imagery).

In these situations, we have to dig deep, deeper than we believe we are actually capable of.

Make the speech.  Pack your bags.  Resign.  Walk away.  Let go of some dreams to make way for new ones.

In many of these scenarios and others, being an adult requires us to have difficult conversations.  Make that excruciating….Conversations that you’ve no idea how to start or end but need to be said.  Words that you know may sound cruel or make you look like the bad guy – in your own eyes even if no-one else’s.  Statements that you never foresaw but now you have to utter because your entire well-being depends on it.

When you manage those conversations, however ineloquently, then you know that you are getting to grips with self-care.  Not the hot baths, not the scented candles, not even the weekly flowers.  The ultimate self-care is when we assert our needs and our boundaries with others even if it is the hardest conversation we have ever had.

And afterward we go back to doing dishes, wiping the surfaces, emptying the bins.




10 thoughts on “Not all baths & candles: the difficult work of self-care

  1. Rae, your piece resonated with me. We lost my almost-98 year old Grandmother in June. In spite of the fact that I’m 46, her passing felt like the end of childhood. To my grandparents, we were always the ‘young people’ but now the tables turn. We look at our aging parents and see that it’s our turn to look after them. The odd sticker wouldn’t go amiss 😉


  2. So funny because another blog friend wrote about mustering up the wherewithal to apologize, or get an apology that is needed, so that you may get on with your life. I often think of my life as relentless. Especially with a toddler. And you know, there may be a conversation of importance that needs to be had! Wonderfully written Rae Ritchie!!!


  3. “Words that you know may sound cruel or make you look like the bad guy – in your own eyes even if no-one else’s.”

    Oh, how this resonates with me today. I am the bad guy after calling my step daughter on her sh1t yesterday. My partner does not like confrontation and so his way of dealing with his daughter is not to. I decided my sanity is more important than this illusory notion that I can be a proper mum and always be popular with the teenager.

    Self care can sometimes leave us feeling ambivalent: feeling relief for having spoken the hard truth, living with the knowledge that this has made us the bad guy for having spoken that hard truth.

    So, thank you for this. I needed to read it.


    1. Thank you Roxanne, glad that the post resonated with you. My instinct is to say I’m sorry you’re going through but actually that suggests avoiding difficult situations when possible is what we should desire…But no. We have to face what is. And you’ve done that xx


  4. Reading your words was both a balm and the prick of the thorn. The resonance of a shared humans experience, made me feel that much less “alone.” But the hard truth within, which you so deftly describe, is the challenge I struggle with. At some point, a few days ago, when worrying and fretting that I was not doing something the right way I had a glimmer of insight that this is, oddly enough, MY life, and I am the one living it. What a kick in the britches that was. So those hard conversations…I need to have those with myself!


    1. So glad the post resonated with you Tina. Those conversations are tough going whoever they are with. I think sometimes it is easier to avoid ourselves so good work for giving yourself that tough kick!


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