The past several months have been pretty rough. Each day’s news inundates us with more stories of political hypocrisy, hate crimes, or police brutality, which weigh heavy on the national consciousness — particularly for people of color.
It’s no surprise then, that another topic has come into focus: self-care. Simply put, self-care is the deliberate act of doing something nice for yourself; it is acknowledging that the world is a cruel and confusing place, and that simple creature comforts and small indulgences can act as a sort of psychological salve, to help us survive each day.
Although self-care is a fairly universal term, it is infinitely diverse and personal in what it can mean to each person. For some, self-care is going on vacation, or buying that outfit that they had been eyeing in the store window for months. For others, it may be taking a mental health day to focus on their own peace of mind, or carving out time to video chat with a friend who lives halfway around the world.
Regardless of how we practice self-care, there is one common thread — we step back from the responsibilities of daily life, and take a moment to care for ourselves.
When I first heard of the concept of self-care, I was all for it. Current events had left me needing to unplug from it all, to run away and recharge myself. So, I thought, if this self-care thing seemed to work so well for most of the internet, why can’t it work for me?
I carved out an entire Sunday for myself; I’d just relax and unwind. But, when the day came, it was more difficult than I had imagined — I sat on a corner of my sofa, staring at my kitchen and my laptop, alternately, with a kind of compulsive need to do something useful. Stop wasting time, an inner voice told me. Stop wasting away the day. You can’t afford this. You don’t have time for this.
“Stop wasting time, an inner voice told me. Stop wasting away the day. You can’t afford this. You don’t have time for this.”
But, realistically, I can afford it. My world would not fall to pieces if I took off a single day. So then, why was taking the time to relax so taxing? The more I thought about it, the more I realized it may have had to do with the examples — or lack thereof — of self-care I was exposed to growing up among my family, friends, and larger immigrant community.
My parents, and the parents of most of my friends, are immigrants. Many of them came to the United States from their home countries in their early to mid-twenties, seeking higher education, or better work opportunities. Many of them arrived in the U.S. with drive and work ethic, but not a lot of money. In order to make it in this strange new land, they knew they had to chase every opportunity, pursue every avenue, and work — work until they couldn’t work anymore.
Some of these immigrants worked multiple jobs, attended school, and took English classes, all to keep their families afloat; they crammed productivity into every second of their lives to ensure the success of the people relying on them. Time not spent working was spent maintaining the home, and rearing children; not for things they deemed as wasteful, such as vacations, or dinners out, or spa days. This willingness to exert themselves, this ability to self-sacrifice for the good of their children, rubbed off on the next generation; they were the models we shaped ourselves after, whether we were cognizant of it or not.
Although I thought that older family members never relaxed because of a masochistic love of being overworked, it is now clear that many of them felt that they had no choice. They had made a commitment to come to this country and take care of their loved ones, sometimes by caring for the spouses and children who lived with them, and sometimes by sending money back to friends and family who lived in the home country.
The hard work came from a place of fear; these immigrants realized that there was no safety net, and nobody was coming to save them if they failed. Self-care was a frivolity for these people, not something they took for granted as many of us do today. Caring for the self was something done only when everyone else had been cared for, an endless to-do list that never seemed completed.
“Caring for the self was something done only when everyone else had been cared for, an endless to-do list that never seemed completed.”
Consciously or unconsciously, their diligent ways crept into our brains and became part of our habits. The older we grew, the more like them we became. In our constant drive to work more, get better, and build on what our parents gave us, we also seem to never have learned how to take care of ourselves.
So then, it’s no surprise that the children of immigrants might struggle with the concept of self-care. Although it is a term bandied about on the internet as a basic need, on par with food and water and shelter, many children of immigrants realize and remember that self-care is not, in fact, available to everyone. While the monetary requirements of caring for oneself may not be overly demanding, its intrinsic requirement of time — time that could be spent working — is a luxury to many.
And yet, it is a luxury we should indulge in, every now and again.
Although our parents’ habits, both good and bad, may have influenced us, we must keep in mind that they made those sacrifices not so we could live like them, but so we could build on their legacies.
Self-care, immigrant style can be taking time outside of our daily hustle to learn more about and engage in topics we feel passionate about, such as social justice. It can be taking part in protests, or connecting with others, online or in person, to expand our personal horizons.
“Self-care, immigrant style can be taking time outside of our daily hustle to learn more about and engage in topics we feel passionate about, such as social justice.”
Furthermore, although the term “self-care” has been popularized by the millennial generation, our most important goal of all may be to share the term with our families; the ones who came before us to make our lives possible in the West. As they grow older and the people they worried about caring for all those years ago — namely us — can now take care of themselves, we can encourage them to learn about the things that they enjoy doing. Hobbies, vacations, or simply relaxing at home may have been things alien to our parents’ generation thus far, but now may finally be the time to reap the rewards of their investments many years ago.
Because of how accessible and affordable many self-care options are, it seems like a concept anyone — regardless of age, socioeconomic class, or privilege can access. However, immigrants and their children know firsthand that putting this accessibility into practice may not always be as easy as it appears. The very act of taking time out of your day to do something nice for yourself implies that time is an expendable commodity; an implication that is far from universally true.
Being aware that self-care is a luxury for some makes it all the more important for those who can afford it; it honors the legacy of hard work that our parents and grandparents — the people who emigrated from their home countries to provide more opportunities for their families — left for us.
* * *
Rashmi Venkatesh is a pharmacologist who now works behind a desk and lives in the Metro D.C. area. Her interests include feminism, pop science, South Asian diasporic culture and media, and biryani. You can find her on Twitter at @rashmiv11.