It would never occur to me to simply toast bread for a sandwich without an outside force prompting me to do so. There would have to be a need for the toast, like Thanksgiving dinner; toast is needed to make cornbread dressing. Or Sunday morning breakfast and we’re having eggs, bacon, and toast. The thought of toasting bread would never enter my head on its own. I would never think, “You know, a toasted sandwich sounds good right about now. Let me prepare some tuna salad and slice up a summer tomato and toast some wheat bread for a nice sandwich.” No. Such thoughts do not occur to me.
Recently, in the community kitchen at my office, a woman was doing just that: toasting bread to make herself a nice sandwich for lunch. My observation of the woman and the realization that she was toasting bread for a sandwich triggered my messed-up self. Old sad feelings flooded my chest. My heart felt a little heavy. Why in the world would toast stir up feelings, you ask?
Well, it’s the self-care. Going to the trouble of making toast for a sandwich represents to me self-care. At times, when I witness someone doing something that demonstrates to me that they value themselves, I am triggered. I am reminded that I come from a family who is painfully short on knowing how to do this “self-care” thing. We are always much better at functioning in chaos and “getting by” than we are at self-care. I grew up in a family that took shortcuts on things you really shouldn’t cut short. Now, if you’re stranded on an island, we’re your people. We can make due with nothing. But when you are not stranded on an island, it makes more sense to buy new shoes when your current ones are worn out; go see a dentist about that nagging tooth ache; and slow down long enough to fix yourself a decent lunch. The sad feelings brought on by toast stem from an ancient longing for my mother to take proper care of herself. I realize that one of the reasons she didn’t take very good care of herself is because she was busy taking care of other people. I know this is a fairly common situation with mothers. My mother was at least slightly worse, but probably much worse, at the important job of self-care than other mothers I know. As a child, I always wanted her to get a manicure on a regular basis. The thought of old meatloaf under her unkempt fingernails was scary to me. I think we can all understand how a child wants her mother to be happy and behave in appropriate ways. Although she was never diagnosed by a doctor as depressed, I feel sure she was. And the reason she was never diagnosed by a doctor is because the last time I recall her going to see a doctor was in 1970.
The self-care ache in my heart is two-fold. First, it’s an ache for my mother. I wanted her to be “okay.” I wanted her to value herself enough to take care of herself. I wanted her to value herself at least as much as she valued my dad, my aunt, and me. She always ended up on the back burner. I wanted her to spend a little bit of money on herself every now and then. There were lots of times I would come to visit and her kitchen sink would need a good cleaning, so I would look for cleaning products and find none. She just never had the things other mothers had. Every time I see a grandmother wearing lipstick and nail polish, my heart hurts a little.
My mother was an extremely creative woman. She could take the upholstery off of a couch and use it as a pattern to make new upholstery for the couch. Amazing. But she never seemed to realize her creative gift. She would minimize her talent and honestly think, “Oh, that’s nothing. Anyone could do this if they just tried.”
The second fold of this ache is an ache for myself because I had no healthy role model for this – no training as to how to value myself and provide good self-care. There are lots of ways I neglected to take care of myself over the years: choosing toxic friendships and romances; believing my inner critic; “getting by” with worn-out undergarments or socks with holes; drinking myself crazy; and not making myself toasted sandwiches. The same kind of thing happened a few months ago in the lunch room at work. I walked in to heat up my Lean Cuisine, and I watched a woman open up several square plastic containers full of various salad toppings for her lunch. So much trouble! She opened the container of lettuce and added diced red peppers, shredded carrots and cheese. She drizzled dressing on top of it. Even the salad dressing was in a cute green plastic container. She snapped the plastic lid on the container of salad and shook it while she glanced casually at the newspaper lying nearby. My broken self was stunned by my own feelings; feelings that seemed to come out of nowhere. Feelings of sadness and grief for something I will never have. Part of the trigger was related to the ease with which the woman had taken such good care of herself. She assembled her healthy lunch and did so while casually reading the newspaper. She had obviously been raised by someone who had taught her how to properly care for herself. At times, I yearn to be the daughter of one of those women who own Tupperware and crock pots and savings accounts. A person who plans things like pregnancy and what to wear to work each day. The kicker is that I probably look like one of these “together” people I’m describing. It’s true that I’ve done a lot of work over the years to become my own loving parent. I’m better than I used to be, but I’m not as good as I want to be.