You care for yourself. You care whether you live or die. You want to prosper, thrive, and flourish. You have sympathy for your point of view. You defend yourself from those who would malign you. You are your own main guy, without whom, you’d be sunk. You may not be the center of the universe, but you’re the center of your own universe.
But do you take care of yourself? By that I mean, do you perform the maintenance, keep up with the upkeep, and make the choices it takes to function at a high level? If your body was a car, would you regularly change the oil, rotate the tires, and drive slowly over bumps? If your mind was a computer, would you update the program, defrag the system, and clear it of malware and bugs? If you’re like most of us, you probably don’t. You probably run your mind and body into the ground, as if it were a rental and you’d rather have a different model, anyway.
You care for yourself, but you may not take care of yourself.
Think of the work you do throughout your week that does nothing more than maintain your body and mind. You brush your teeth, wash your face, bathe, shave, and clip your toenails. You must cook healthy food, and later, must wash the dishes and put things away. You do the laundry. You pick up around the house, dust, vacuum, and mop the floor. You wash the windows. You change your bed. You sleep. You go to the doctor and submit to uncomfortable procedures and tests. You take pills. You talk about your feelings, laugh, and sort things out.
When someone asks what you did today, or what your occupation is, you mention none of that. Self-care is not worth admitting. Imagine if I, a therapist and writer, were to go to a cocktail party and someone asked what I do, and I said, I clip my toenails when they need clipping. The conversation would end there, even though we have that in common. That’s because the work of care is not worth mentioning.
Even if you take care of yourself most of the time, you know what happens when you’re under stress. The first thing that gives will be the activities of self-care. When things are busy at work and your boss is on your back, you’ll devote more time to work, even though all you may be doing is shuffling papers around. You’ll cut back on sleep. Next, you’ll skip lunch. You won’t admit to your feelings. The house will begin to look like a hoarder’s home because you haven’t picked up. You’ll stop cooking dinner and eat more prepared junk food. The dishes will pile up. Usually, personal grooming is the last to go, only because nobody wants you to stink at work.
Like I said. You care for yourself; but when push comes to shove, you may not take care of yourself.
I think I know the reason for it, and it’s not because you hate yourself. You may not take care of yourself, but you care for yourself. In fact, you might care for yourself too much to take care of yourself. Hear me out, and you’ll see.
Overall, as a society, we don’t seem to care about care. By care I mean all the work of maintenance that keeps things alive. Look at the plight of the people who provide care and you can tell how little we value it. Think of parents of young children. Unpaid, undervalued, they usually have no choice but to provide the care they give, with no break for illness or vacation. They cannot even start with the work of care until they’ve done their other jobs; and then they can’t take care of themselves, until they’ve cared for others. They’re so taken for granted, they’re almost invisible. The 2021 expanded Child Tax Credit began to compensate for the contributions parents make to society in raising their children, but it was allowed to expire.
Next, think of the workers who do the grunt work, caring for our children, sick, and elderly when we don’t do it. None of these jobs are well paid. They have terrible working conditions. The work of care is so devalued, but so essential, we’ve marginalized entire classes of people, women and minorities, so they have little choice but to perform those jobs.
Don’t tell me these are the most meaningful jobs around, and we can pay them poorly because, unlike Wall Street executives, they get a good feeling in their hearts. Ninety-nine percent of care work is simple drudgery.
If you take any profession, paid or unpaid, and assess how much of the work involves maintenance, as opposed to change, you’ll find that change is much more highly rewarded than maintenance. The doctor who heals the patient is compensated better than the nurse who cleans the bedpan. The dentist who fills the cavity is over the hygienist who scrapes the tartar. The carpenter who builds the building gets paid more than the janitor who cleans it. The professional athlete is paid many times more than the trainers and equipment managers that keep him on the field. The Primary school teacher who wipes the snot, tissues the tears, and nurtures the tender feelings of small children is not rewarded as well as the college professor who can pretend his students don’t have feelings.
A profession doesn’t even have to be creative, healing, or even pro-social to be more rewarding than the folks who do maintenance. The Marine who assaults the city is honored more than the troops who hold it. The pilot who drops the bombs is greater than the technician who services the plane. The drug dealer who ruins lives makes out better than the policeman who saves them.
Care should be important, even if you love no one but yourself. You needed it when you were young and will need it when you’re sick or old. You need care workers to take the kids so their parents can work for you. Care is as essential an infrastructure as roads and bridges. Without it, nothing else gets done. The recent infrastructure bill, Build Back Better, might have acknowledged care work and supported it, but that part was voted out.
This is my hypothesis. The general denigration of care results in the neglect of self-care. It’s all around. Oh, you’ll get plenty of encouragement to indulge yourself in treats like chocolate, fine wine, fancy vacations, fun gifts, classy cars, and spas. Spending money on luxuries is said to be taking care of yourself, but it’s not. It’s a way of fooling you into thinking you’re taking care of yourself when you’re taking care of those who sell luxury goods.
You can also see the denigration of care erode relationships. I counsel a lot of couples in which there’s one partner who doesn’t take care of himself. I’m ashamed to say it’s usually a straight, white, cisgendered male, like me. Even if they’re not busy at work, they will not do their share of taking care of the house, the kids, the laundry, the cooking, cleaning up, or paying the bills. They avoid the doctor. They don’t know how to talk about their feelings. It’s left to the less generally privileged partner to take care of things. They’re the responsible ones, just like it’s left to the marginalized segments of society to take care of us all.
Straight, white, cisgendered males view the work of care as beneath them. Why wouldn’t we? People who do care work don’t have the privileges we have. We’re put on earth to build, create, make deals, protect, and disrupt, not to take care of what we already have. Care is women’s work, or the work of slaves. We shouldn’t even take care of ourselves. We should have others do it for us so we can do greater things.
Even if a straight, white, cisgendered male is not in a relationship, they will neglect self-care. Go to any event where some people dress up and the people who dress the best, with the most attention to their grooming, will be the African Americans, the women, and the gay men. If the married white men look good, it’s because their wives dress them. Straight, white, cisgendered males can get away with neglecting self-care.
It doesn’t stop there. When I meet with straight, white, cisgendered males in therapy, they frequently have trouble taking care of their feelings. They erupt in anger, drink too much, do too many drugs. If they bottle their feelings, it’s only because they do not know how to care for them. Straight, white, cisgendered males are a mess because of their neglect of care. It’s getting to be that we’re as helpless and useless as antebellum southern belles of old, in their hooped skirts, who had slaves to do all their work. We have entered a prison of privilege, where, to take care of ourselves would diminish our status.
If you’re not white, male, straight, or cisgendered, you may also have problems with taking care. You might be expected to do care work, but that doesn’t mean you like it. You do it when you can’t avoid it. A woman will spend hours doing her hair, nails, putting on makeup, dieting, and picking out the perfect outfit, cleaning the house, dressing her husband, raising perfectly well behaved and healthy children, and taking her elderly parents to the doctor because, if she were to let any of that slip, she’d be falling off the last rung of the ladder. She’s often far more emotionally mature than her man because he won’t take care of her feelings and she is less allowed to have a bad day.
Of course, I’m making sweeping generalizations. I don’t mean to say that every man or every woman is like this. I’m like a fish that’s trying to tell you that we live in water. There are some who have crawled up on dry land, but they’re the exceptions. If you’ve ever wondered why you’ve had trouble taking care of yourself, it’s because care work is the work of slaves and you don’t want to be a slave.
What would I like you to do instead? Pay homage to those who do the work of care and value the function of care. People performing maintenance are as important as those who create. The work you do to keep up your health is as important as any work you do. Shuffling the work of care onto others will turn you into a China doll who cannot come down off the shelf.
If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will, if only because taking care improves your other work. I once knew a musician who practiced every day until his fingers bled, but never got any better until he paid attention to the care of his instrument. By instrument, he meant his bass, but he also meant his self. When he started eating better, sleeping well, and sorting out his feelings, he improved his musical performance. Today, he’s a top bass player, who ought to be an inspiration to us all.
So, take care.