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A Much-Needed Shift in Self-Care

Michelle Richardson


As someone who has developed a mindfulness practice and who teaches others to do the same, I have often wondered why so many women struggle to put their own needs above those of others. In my experience, this has always been an issue, but as many of us went through the recent years of COVID-19 as frontline workers in women-dominated professions such as teaching and nursing, the question became even more pressing and apparent. It came to light how many cracks are in the foundation of these professions due to a systemic lack of funding, support and respect. Many of us have become aware not only of these systemic and gendered issues but also of the need to shift our priorities and think authentically about self-care.

I share my story in hopes of motivating others to make themselves a top priority and to demonstrate that becoming more present in life’s simple moments, without guilt and with control over our thoughts, is key to selfcare. Like many women, I spent years putting my family, friends and teaching career first. Through it all, I navigated a series of personal traumas and challenges while trying to balance a demanding teaching career in special education and a second or third job to make ends meet as a single mom who the legal system had failed. I mostly hid how difficult things were for me mentally and physically, and I was daunted by a wellness industry that seemed to target and victimize women.

It wasn’t until I put my own definition of well-being first that I started to better balance my life. Wellness can and should not come at a cost to your bank account or sense of self-compassion. It can be meditation, mindfulness, self-help, healing traumas, exercise or sleep. It can be time with friends, doing absolutely nothing on the couch for a few minutes daily or even the entire day. It can be art, hiking, writing, music, cooking or anything that makes you feel centred and in touch with your “self.” It can mean taking a day off to sleep in, organizing a messy home, reading, seeing a therapist or simply doing nothing. The pressure women now feel to practice self-care in a prescribed manner can lead to feelings of inadequacy. As educators, we are inundated with self-care and mental health resources, but what is shared can at times feel insincere, scripted and ultimately serve to distract from the real issue of systemic inequities that require institutional changes in how women (and other traditionally marginalized groups) are treated, valued and supported.

Mindfulness presents the idea of calming the mind. It is as individual as we are. It can mean whatever you need to do to just be in the moment and to free your mind of spinning and draining thoughts. Accepting that you have the right to define your version of mindfulness, and ultimately self-care, is empowering and liberating.

Educators went from one of the most difficult rounds of bargaining in ETFO’s history straight into the COVID-19 pandemic, both under a Conservative government intent on undermining public education and Ontario educators. Educators fought back, forcing the government to provide additional funding and health and safety measures for our public schools. We have worked tirelessly to support our students and their families, switched from in-person learning to online learning and back again and dealt with the unknowns of a global pandemic as frontline workers. As I’m writing this, Ontarians are heading into a provincial election and then educators are back in bargaining once again. The past three years have been challenging and exhausting, and many of us have been burning the candle at both ends. This summer is an opportunity to prioritize our wellbeing, recharge and refill our pitchers.

While we spend much of our days thinking about our students who struggle, it is time to radically accept that we can’t fix everything and it is imperative to prioritize our own wellbeing. According to Harvard Health, “Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment – and accepting it without judgment.” The strategy you use is up to you. For me, some days it is meditation, but other days it is a workout, listening to music, stopping and listening to the sounds in my home of children and dogs or the sound of the wind in the pine trees or smelling cookies baking. What takes you out of your head and into the moment? What allows you to focus on moments of self-compassion and perspective? What can you do to slow those spinning thoughts long enough to see they are just that...thoughts? Make a list, be open to letting your needs take you where you need to go and dedicate time each day for moments, or even just one quick moment, of filling your pitcher. Do not allow guilt to steal your moments as you take time for yourself. Guilt is a useless and toxic emotion.

It Doesn't Have to Be Complicated

Sustainable happiness and peace come from within. They come from calming the mind and learning to prioritize your well-being however that may look. It can simply be about grabbing some peace in moments of your everyday life. Mindfulness is just one of the strategies you can incorporate into your self-care practice.

Try a Few of the Following to Get Started:

  • Take a few moments to create a list of activities that take you out of your thoughts and allow you to feel connected to yourself and/or simply present in the moment.
  • Figure out where in your typical day you can fit in those moments. Is it in the car driving to work, over a morning coffee, in the shower, walking the dog or even simply standing in the lineup at the grocery store?
  • Journaling is incredibly therapeutic and allows us to reflect on patterns in our thoughts and behaviors. It doesn’t have to be daily and can even be an app on your phone that you discretely access in moments throughout the day.
  • Streamline your social media and the “feeds” that come to you daily to reflect what brings you joy, peace and moments of self-care. For example, is it filled with travel, positive memes, inspirational people, animals, flowers, food, etc., or do you need to completely delete the apps from your phone? It may be time to reevaluate what feeds your mind daily. The wellness industry saturates social media with their version of how this should look and with a well-marketed attempt to shame women into buying in.
  • Create a simple mantra you can repeat to yourself at times when you start to feel overwhelmed.
  • Take time to stop and breathe throughout your day. It sounds so simple but it is one of the most effective strategies for calming the mind and body and centring ourselves in the moment.

Michelle Richardson is a member of York Region Teacher Local.