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.