My garden is in ruins.
It seemed like such a good idea at the beginning of the pandemic. I would plant vegetables to get through the tough times, much like folks during the World Wars cultivated Victory Gardens to combat food shortages and raise their spirits.
Thus, in the name of food sovereignty and fun, I decided to plant a “Covictory Garden,” if you will.
My neighbor had already grown a veritable Whole Foods in his backyard, and I keenly observed (spied, whatever) that he and his family were eating off the land and didn’t have to go to the store for produce. I watched his kids plucking snacks from berry bushes and fruit trees (and was it in my imagination, or were they doing so in happy slow motion?). I imagined my kids having that same bucolic and joyful memory of quarantine times.
This guy really loved his gardening too – he said he found it “therapeutic” – so maybe I needed this for my self-care even though I had no interest in gardening?
I would involve my children!
I would infuse science lessons into gardening, now that I was (kind of) a homeschooling mama!
I would lovingly cut fresh basil for my homemade whatever!
For a while, it was looking great. My children helped. We learned about photosynthesis. We looked hopefully at the little sprouts, and a few months later, enjoyed our first ever “fresh from the garden” snap pea together. It was glorious. I was Mrs. Freakin’ McGregor. I envisioned leveling up my homespun garden-to-table with backyard chickens!
Except I wasn’t really enjoying gardening. I didn’t find it therapeutic. I found it to be another chore I didn’t want to do. And my kids Little Red Henned me and wouldn’t help.
So, after the first snap pea harvest, I didn’t do anything with the garden. No watering. No weeding. No therapeutic tending. No stopping our new quarantine puppy from snapping the broccoli in half. No chickens producing my breakfast omelet. And everything in the garden died.
About a month ago, I glanced at my weed patch, and it bummed me out. There it was, my failed gardening-as-self-care.
I briefly thought about how much my neighbor loved his garden, and maybe I should reboot it.
But I didn’t have the energy. Truth be told, I had pandemic fatigue.
After a year plus of tending to my 6- and 9-year-old’s distance learning, raging against the (Chrome) machine and Google Slides or whatever ZipZop app was currently contributing to my daughters’ meltdown du jour, I was spent.
I was exhausted from a year of leveling up my positivity to Pinkie Pie Pony proportions for my kids. (For the non-parents and non-Bronies out there — Pinkie Pie is the saccharine My Little Pony who never fails to be happy, even when in peril. See every episode: “I’m going off a treacherous waterfall….wheeeee!!!!”)
Like my pink friend, I’d spent a year reframing negative to positive.
Holding space for all the feels and reframing is what I do all day in my profession as a school psychologist, so naturally, I did it with my own family too.
This! Latest! Change! In! Your! School! Schedule! Is! Going! To! Be! GREAT!
California is literally on fire … but my house is not!
We’re not stuck at home, we’re SAFE at home!
Everyone in the whole family is totally Zoomed out … but at least we have Internet!
It was exhausting.
Truth be told, work/life balance has also been a hot mess. I used to be uber-productive, and now it can take hours to write an email that took 5 minutes in the “before times.”
I have spent the greater part of a year doing the opposite of Dolly Parton’s “on the job from 9 to 5.” I’ve been toggling from tending to kids to trying to work from 9:01-9:06, 9:15-9:20, and so on, all day long. And I cannot even count the times I have literally peeled children off of me during a professional Zoom meeting.
So when I saw my garden in ruins, the thought of tending to it at the end of the day sounded about as much fun as poking my eyes out. Tending to anything, really, felt burdensome. I was down to doing the bare minimum in the self-care department.
I’m not sure when “self-care” went from lovingly tending to a family garden to sitting alone in my car in my driveway hiding from everyone….but if you know, you know.
Then, this past weekend, I saw it.
In my garden, one row of hardy kale plants had inexplicably grown in the dry clay. It was enough to harvest one whole dinner side dish!
We joyfully gathered ‘round ye olde Covictory Garden and my 6-year-old began the harvest.
And do you know what I noticed while she was clipping this death-defying plant?
I had casually dropped an old irrigation hose near the kale and it had been watering the row the whole time.
I had an epiphany.
What if self-care wasn’t about making tons of time to do a THING because you feel you should enjoy it?
What if self-care was about automating and integrating? What if it was about creating systems that make nurturing your own well-being “too small and too easy to fail”?
I felt a surge of Pinkie Pie energy again…
I started thinking about all the ways I had learned to put self-care on autopilot during the pandemic (something, ironically, I teach ALL DAY LONG in my positive parenting courses based on the science of habit formation).
- I pair my morning coffee ritual (a well established habit, y’all) with putting a note in our family gratitude jar, which we then routinely read together over ice cream on Sundays.
- I use my signature go-to phrase for whenever I find myself criticizing my parenting, my productivity, or others. I simply added “…in a global pandemic” to the end of the criticism. As in: “My garden died…in a global pandemic.” Or “My kid is having a meltdown over nothing…in a global pandemic” or “I did not get through my to-do list today…in a FREAKING GLOBAL PANDEMIC.”
- I learned to take breaks when my kids had their scheduled “recess” on distance learning. Like actual breaks from my inbox. Dance breaks, jump on the trampoline breaks, and laying in the sun snuggling my kiddos breaks. Adult recess breaks…it’s now a THING.
- When my gym closed and I realized I had no desire to take up running (I feel like running should be reserved for when you are in danger), I signed up for weekly online hip hop classes with my favorite teacher from a decade ago. This was what I actually wanted—total immersion in the music and what-move-comes-next for a full hour. With one simple sign up I automated having fun and working out three times a week. (Hip Hop Tik Tok video NOT forthcoming, though. Sorry folks!).
I bet you’ve learned some things about yourself in these wild times, too?
Have you found your self-care “thing”? And have you found a way to build it in your day?
Or are you looking into your neighbor’s garden for what you “should” do to take care of yourself and then beating yourself up for not self-caring correctly?
Self-care looks different for everyone. And it’s certainly not just one big thing you do because someone else tells you it should be therapeutic (like, gardening).
Self-care is not forcing yourself to take me time when you want to work or forcing social interaction when you want to be alone.
Self-care is all the little ways you do you.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’mma do me and hop on my Zoom date with Snoop Dogg and my hip hop friends…
Rebecca Branstetter, Ph.D., is a school psychologist, speaker, and author on a mission to help children thrive by supporting school psychologists, educators, and families. She is the founder of The Thriving School Psychologist Collective, an online community dedicated to improving mental health and learning supports in schools, as well as the co-creator of the “Make It Stick Parenting” course, which provides parents tools to build their child’s social-emotional learning, and Commune’s “Peace of Mind Parenting” course to support families during the pandemic…and beyond.