Editorial: The Necessity of Self Care for Changemakers
January 03, 2020
From our founder:
Self care is a buzz word these days, and it's big business, too. Multiple industries from food to wellness to fashion are hoping you'll try to soothe your stressed-out, burned-out self by indulging in self care (read: consuming). But is there something deeper here that we can learn from?
Self care is actually a concept that originated in activism communities. Change-makers deeply immersed in the world's biggest problems started to realize that they were burning out before their mission was complete because they were neglecting to refill the cup that they were pouring so much out of.
I experienced this first-hand a few years ago. I was working full time in a stressful job for a big corporation and was passionately working on a certain startup company (hint: this one) during every available minute of free time I had. I was going to save the planet by creating irresistible natural skincare products and donating 5% of the revenue to environmental organizations. Time spent relaxing or having fun was virtually nonexistent — and irrelevant; I was doing something far more important, after all.
One day, someone on Next Door asked if anyone had a cat trap to lend out, and I did because I'd taken a neighborhood feral to get spayed a couple years back. I drove to the neighborhood halfway across town to drop off the trap, and was shocked at how dozens of cats were lounging on everyone's driveways, sidewalks, front porches, etc. It was like I'd entered another dimension where cats ruled the world, except these cats looked pretty scraggly. The residents were feeding them plenty of cheap kibble but no one was looking after their health, especially not their reproductive health. I was so relieved that someone was going to do something about it.
But when I dropped off the trap, it became painfully obvious that the guy borrowing traps at the advice of his concerned friend had no plan of action for trapping the dozen or so cats hanging out in his yard and getting them fixed, much less tackling the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of others in his neighborhood.
Here was an immediate problem, a leadership vacuum, and despite all I had on my plate and all my dreams of making a difference in a way that was meaningful to me and relevant to my capabilities through Activist, I jumped headfirst into that void. It felt like an emergency and I acted accordingly.
I spent the next year or so trapping more than 85 cats. I was out late at night setting traps. I was up at dawn to shuttle them to the SPCA for spaying/neutering. I was making excuses to leave work early to pick them up before the SPCA closed at 5. I was up late caring for them after surgery in my bathroom and garage. I was filling out copious paperwork and dealing with annoying red tape and persnickety nonprofit coordinators. I was stepping out of my introverted comfort zone trying to convince the residents to let me take their cats away for 48 hours to slow the deluge of homeless kittens, and playing doctor as I showed them how to prevent worms and fleas with low cost options.
On a good night, I had 6 full traps in the back of my Prius, then 6 traps propped up on 2x4s over newspapers in my garage. A bad night was wasting a few frustrating hours hauling traps across town, getting smelly canned fish on my hands, and watching the sly cats who had wisened up to me take a sniff at a trap before slinking on into the night.
I felt like a crazy cat lady. Every ounce of me, physically, mentally, emotionally, was drained. But I couldn't stop — everywhere I looked, there were more cats threatening to procreate. Each one represented something like 500 or more kittens that I alone could prevent from living a hard life on the streets. Each night that I stayed up late and each morning that I woke before dawn meant I was preventing suffering. (Meanwhile, my loving husband did everything he could both to assist me and to convince me to be more reasonable, but I was on a mission and biological clocks were ticking all around me.)
Then one day I had to stop. I was 35 weeks pregnant (on purpose), still working a full time job, still working to get Activist off the ground: formulating, marketing, shipping orders, and everything else. I gave it all I had and then, thanks to my own reproductivity, I had to stop. I have to say I'm grateful there was a forced end, or who knows where my mental, physical and emotional health would have been.
Still, I didn't learn my lesson. I was lucky to get six months of paid maternity leave from my day job, and what did I do? I had our new nanny start working part-time when my son was just one week old (and my stitches weren't even healed yet) so I could spend a dozen or so hours of my sleep-deprived existence working on Activist each week for those six months.
Not the most productive period, but I was hell bent on not losing my identity in the midst of motherhood. In a weird way, I think it helped me avoid postpartum depression to know that a slice of my life still serviced my deepest held values. As exhausted as I was, I was proud to "have it all," a family and a purpose outside my household. But clearly, I was also out of balance.
After maternity leave I returned to my day job, and Activist took a back seat. I wasn't sure how to proceed. I was afraid of being a stay-at-home mompreneur with an infant at home, so I nixed that option. Instead, I squeezed Activist into my two 20-minute pumping sessions and lunch break every day at work. The business was basically on life support.
When my son was around 12 months old, my husband accepted a new job opportunity out of state, we moved, and I left my day job. With a toddler who was now eating solid food and interested in toys, being a mompreneur seemed more doable, although it was still a difficult adjustment, with constant indecision over whether continuing the business was worth the stress and sacrifice.
Knowing my personality and intense need to be involved in something, I decided to hang on, clinging to a sense of greater purpose and struggling through a work/life co-existence (forget balance). Now that my son is in preschool two days a week, I feel that my life is starting to approach a semblance of balance.
But make no mistake, it's not because I have less on my plate — it's because I've finally learned that I can't live in a constant state of maxed out. I've started to put a real value on the things that make me feel like me. Not the things that make me feel like I'm doing my part on this planet, but the things that get me back in touch with myself: time in nature spent gardening, learning to surf or going for a hike; making myself a decent healthy meal even when no one else in my family likes the same foods as me; slowing down for a minute to put on a podcast or playlist before jumping into emails; reading for pleasure every now and then; and yes, actually taking care of my skin on a daily basis.
Now, instead of making it my mission to save the planet, I've made it my mission to support those who are saving the planet. Activism itself needs to be sustainable — emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually.
When being an activist seems alienating or all-consuming, aspiring change-makers hang back and stay out of the movement. When people are struggling to survive, they can't participate equitably in larger movements, so the movements won't reflect them. And when our passionate, dedicated change-makers burn out, the movement comes to a halt. This existential crisis we're in requires the coming together of people from every walk of life, so we must lower the barriers to entry to becoming an activist and support those who take on the challenge.
Let's take care of ourselves and each other, so that together we can save the world.