Last spring, my baby girl and I took our first trip to the beach. Well, the bay, that is. There was sand and water and ice cream afterwards, so despite the bay bridge looming large on the water, it was a pretty lovely spot on a pretty lovely day. An amazing friend went with us who didn’t mind singing “The Wheels on the Bus” on repeat in the car, and who made the schlepping of so much stuff possible and the day itself much more enjoyable.

It was a successful trip, by most counts. Baby didn’t get sunburned, seemed to tolerate or maybe even enjoy having her legs in the cool bay water, ate some sand, had a long-awaited solid-foods sticky poop-splosion that remained relatively contained, and even took a little nap in the car (I know, what?!?) on the way home.

Baby at the beach = success.

Mama at the beach = sunburned.

Yes, in the frenzy of activity that was changing a poopy diaper on a blanket in the sand and keeping baby girl covered up with sunscreen and hats and nursing her in my bathing suit without going all European style on the joint, I forgot, or maybe more accurately, neglected to put sunscreen on myself. I brought it with me. I had the thought multiple times, at least once out loud, that I should really put on some sunscreen. But somehow, it always seemed like I didn’t have enough hands free to slather it on, and I chose not to make my hands free so I could do so.

Red shoulders and red cheeks of shame are what I bore by the end of the day.

I know better than to mess with the sun, especially at the beginning of the summer season, and if my baby girl has her daddy’s fair skin like she has his blue eyes, then sun skin care will be essential to keep her safe and well. And if I don’t model it for her, she is not going to willingly take the time and effort to lather up each time she goes outside.

As I thought more about it, though, what I realize is that what I need to model goes far beyond taking care of my skin. I need to model taking care of myself.

Self-care is a popular phrase, especially with mental health professionals. We acknowledge that in order to do the work of caring for others without burning out, we must take care of ourselves. Acknowledge. Not always enact. And while getting a massage or a mani-pedi or a bottle of wine are all lovely ways to treat ourselves, they don’t add up to self-care.

So what is self-care? University of Buffalo’s social work program defines self care as referring to activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being. I like that this definition includes self-care as something that we do regularly, something that reduces stress, and both maintains and enhances our well-being.

I think one of the most basic ways in which we take care of ourselves requires slowing down to be present to what the moment holds, to check in about what we need right now. I find that sometimes, I don’t know. As a parent, I often feel like my brain is at its capacity trying to hold all the needs of my babe, and it’s hard to be aware of let alone hold my own needs as well. And sure, sometimes my own needs can’t be met, or can’t be met right now. Babies often can’t meet their own needs, and it is our job to make sure to get them what they need, even when it means we don’t get all that we ourselves need (cough cough SLEEP cough cough).

This beach trip, however, made me realize that I want to grow in my ability to give my needs a little space of their own. Baby girl could have fussed for a minute on the blanket while I lotioned up. Because having a sunburnt mom who can’t carry a diaper bag on her shoulder let alone a baby carrier, this hurts her, too. Having a dehydrated mom who can’t make enough breastmilk, this hurts her, too. We are interconnected, interdependent with those we care for and care about. Our well-being affects those who depend on us, just as theirs affects us.

“Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Most of us, at some point in our lives, will be a caregiver, whether as a professional or a child to an aging parent or a friend or a parent ourselves. We want to offer our care for others with generous, loving hearts. If we don’t tend to our own hearts and minds and bodies in the process, however, generosity turns quickly to resentment. And when this happens, our caring for others loses its heart and has the potential to hurt more than heal.

I hope that I can teach my daughter compassion, not just for others but for herself, caring, not just for others but for herself. And if I want to teach her, my life had better show her, too. Kids sure do know how to call out their parents’ hypocrisy.

So today and each day, may we practice listening to ourselves. Taking a moment, taking a breath. What do I need right now? There is enough space for that need, in the midst of the needs that surround us. Maybe it’s just that pause, that deep breath. Maybe it’s a tall glass of water. Maybe it’s sunscreen. Or a call to a friend, a moment alone, a hug, a belly laugh.

Let’s nourish ourselves so that we can keep on nourishing the world.

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