I walked to the store early in the morning this week to get fresh bread for school sandwiches. (White bread, that kind of processed cheese which is like plastic and the crusts cut off. Don't start.)
On the way I went past a shop that had a blackboard outside. It said: "You are powerful, beautiful, brilliant and brave."
I liked that. I repeated it to my daughter when I got home. (Eyeroll: "Yeah mum.") I riffed like it was 1992 and I was Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Women, run with the wolves! "Be wild! That is how you clear the river!"
But then I was reminded the blackboard was actually outside a beauty parlour or whatever they're called now. So it was ultimately trying to sell something, probably some unguent or something to do with self-care. Bum.
I'm not a convert. Please never say "live your best life" anywhere round me.
My antipathy to "self-care" is a bit of an anomaly, since in many other ways I've become something of an old hippy, complete with crushed velvet, birkenstocks, a yoga practice. The other day I actually asked someone if they were "nourishing" themselves. I know, shoot me now.
So I'm all about going gently (cough), honouring yourself and your needs and going only so fast as your slowest part feels safe to go. But I think self-care as it is sold to us is a bit of a swindle. Face masks are often involved.
But that's not my problem with it. What I notice is that we seem to bring up our kids to be harshly judgmental to themselves, to punish themselves, to push themselves. And then when they're adults we switch gear and say put your bloody oxygen mask on first; be kind to yourself. This can be nigh on impossible.
Once when I was going through a particularly hard time my mother said: "Darling please stop torturing yourself." I was the one who rolled my eyes then. Because of course, I wanted to but couldn't. Because I had learned from the master: her. My mother spoke gently and lovingly to her children, but acted like a sadistic sergeant-major to herself. She was too fat, she was too lazy, dumb, unworthy. Guess which voice I picked up? My mother is dead now, but her voice lives on in me.
Take food, for example.
One of my abiding memories as a child is being gnawingly hungry and being forced to wait and wait for mealtimes. Despite coming from a middle class family there was a puzzling stinginess, a response to scarcity in past-generations that seemed unnecessary but habitual.
I still remember being famished at the dinner table and yet not daring to ask for that last piece of cornbread. I now wonder, was there some buried rage in the way my mother stubbornly under-catered? (Despite having the money to make enough food to feed everyone.) Being denied what you need can provoke a reaction in later life like Kingsley Amis': "I want more than my share before anyone else has had any."
And then you wonder why you eat chocolate cake for breakfast or drink too much wine or are not in touch with what you need.
I got hangry the other day (hungry and angry, like a toddler). It took me a while to realise, but then I had a piece of toast and I felt better. See? I don't have to wait for set meal times now.
But children can't.
At most schools children can't eat when they need to. At one school, they can't even go to the toilet when they need to. "Lynfield College, in Mt Roskill, this week introduced a new rule that no student is to leave class to use the bathroom facilities or to get a drink" the Weekend Herald reported.
What does this teach our kids about their needs? About their souls? They don't matter. These children are learning how to be punitive to themselves.
I'm lucky. My daughter goes to an enlightened (and unique) school where she can eat whenever she is hungry. That just seems sensible to me. I just wish all kids were treated with this kind of care.
So I guess I believe in self-compassion. But I don't know that you can truly be kind to yourself, no matter how many face masks you put on, until you, as an adult, have befriended that long-ago child who still lives on inside you. It's not too late. That little girl (or boy) still needs your love and nourishment.
That little girl (or boy) should not go hungry, or be told they can't go to the toilet when they need to. She or he needs to be looked after, and told she truly is powerful, beautiful, brilliant and brave.