Women Must Care For Themselves First

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant

We all know how to make other people’s lives better, right? We’re very good at that.

When my father and his brothers, then in their late 70s and early 80s, got together, all they did was yell at each other. They would accuse one another of taking rotten care of themselves:

“You didn’t have that colonoscopy yet, did you?”

“Me? You’re the one who never gets his teeth cleaned. There’s a connection between plaque and heart disease, the likes of which your older brother won’t take his medication for.”

“Hey, my heart’s gonna last longer than your lousy knees, which, as you remember, the doctor said you should have had replaced five years ago.”

This exchange of insults was their way of showing love, true. But it was also their way of refusing responsibility for their own well-being.

The dispensing of advice, however heartfelt, was still a dodge: defensively pointing out the flaws in their loved ones’ medical regime was a convenient way of avoiding the truth about their own health, or lack of it.

While the men in my father’s family made an art of putting everybody else’s needs above their own, I’ve become particularly aware of how often, and how ritualistically, women tend to do this.

Women will take care of everybody else in the family, making sure to guard them against disease, want, trouble and anxiety, but leave themselves prey to the vicissitudes of circumstance and fate.

Everybody else in the household will have a doctor’s appointment, but her appointment needs to be rescheduled because somebody else needed a ride. She will drive a friend to a mammogram but will wave off the need to get one herself until there’s less of a waiting period.

She will offer patience, understanding, acceptance, generosity, compassion and forgiveness to everyone except herself. When the little voice inside her speaks up, it’s abrasive, cruel and dismissive. She would never say that kind of thing even to an enemy, but she’s accustomed to hearing it from herself.

But every woman knows the answers for everybody else.

Women know, for example, that their friends don’t get enough sleep and should more fully respect the basic human need to replenish the body’s energy with sufficient rest.
We know everyone should have a quiet, soothing space where they can feel soothed and at ease and that sleep is a routine, like most other fundamental parts of life, requiring self-regulation.

We’ll make this excellent point in a 3 a.m. Facebook post on our timeline because we’re up searching for old college roommates while seeing whether that mid-century lamp is still for sale on eBay. We’re about to download a free app that lets us make a cartoon of ourselves based on a cute photo and sip on that fifth cup of decaf, but then it’s straight to bed.

Or we’ll be on the phone explaining, in earnest and with gusto, how our friend, or kid, or kid’s friend, really should eat farm-to-table, locally grown, market fresh, organically raised, non-GMO “clean” food even if we have to interrupt the conversation briefly to order a Cheesy Bacon Pretzel Dog (with a Turtle Pecan Master Blast, light on the turtles) at the Sonic drive-through.

Women, you see, care about our friends and we want them to be healthy, fit and live a good long life. But us? Can’t you see we’re busy here? We’ve had a hectic, crazy week and it’s not like we don’t sleep ever or eat fast-food all the time. Besides, we don’t need anybody breathing down our necks and telling us what to put in our mouths. We’re just fine, thanks.

So here’s my question: If you could force yourself to do one thing, and only one thing, to take care of yourself more effectively, what would it be?

How about learning to take care of ourselves before attempting to care for anyone else?

Think about the imperative nature of what the flight attendant, in essence, instructs before takeoff: Secure your own health before helping others. To be out of breath, exhausted, unfocused, chronically unhappy, frustrated, distracted is to waste the glorious, irreplaceable privilege of one’s very life.

It’s advice even I’m willing to take: Let’s take care of ourselves as well as each other.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant

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