My breasts and bottom were fair game for open discussion; I learned this early in life. I was small for my age and the youngest in my class so I was teased for being a “shrimp” and called “2×4” when other girls had already started to develop but I had not. “Just give Nicole two band-aids to cover up those mosquito bites on her chest,” a male family member joked. Everyone laughed while I died inside.
As I grew, so did the jokes. If I was too thin, I was mocked for not being enough. When my curves started to fill out and I worked hard in private lessons for a year to gain the position of drum major of my large marching band, it was still my body (and not my talent) that was on display. I was then seen as too much. Comments about my large bottom in my white uniform pants made me blush, but by then I knew this was just normal behavior. Family, friends, and strangers—anyone—had the right to comment on my curves and their proportion to what others expected me to be.
Before I’d barely begun to realize the difference between boys and girls, my admittance into the dance world sent conflicting messages about my sexuality. Dress it up in sequins and put it on display with high kicks and gyrating hips. It was normal for drunken men to gawk at my teenage body dancing at the Superbowl halftime show.
Hide it under a waif-like ballerina body, the carefully placed neckline, and perfect posture. It was normal for my friends to starve themselves for a role, to be the perfect combination of desirable but just out of reach. But always the message was clear – your body is ours to look at, to scrutinize, and to judge. It’s your weapon to wield. It’s our prize to view.
The church added to the messages my mixed-up teenage self kept hidden like the A-cup bra straps I needed to keep tucked away under modest clothing. I was told not to let my brother stumble but my brothers kept coming at me anyway. Their comments were acceptable. People laughed them off. But somehow I had to keep them at bay with longer hemlines.
The night I fell asleep next to a friend on the bus and woke up with his hand under my shirt, I pretended I was still asleep. I just let it happen because I was too ashamed to call my body my own, too naïve to know to call it abuse. It was just another normal step in a culture that gave others ownership of my sexuality but asked me to be its guardian...
It’s true what mother’s say about forgetting the pain of childbirth. My births are now seven and nine and a half years ago and I have to strain to remember the details. Giving birth is a moment we spend countless hours preparing for. It is the culmination of reading and birthing classes, showers, reordering our lives and homes, taking growing baby bump photos, and long months of waiting.
Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. There’s a new life to care for. There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of childbirth. Just moments ago we screamed, “I can’t do this!” in agony but somehow, like millions of mothers before us, we did.
This time of year we talk a lot about birth. We read and sing about it, talk about it at our parties, reorder our lives and homes with decorations celebrating it, look at photos and miniatures of the place of the birth, and spend the long month of Advent waiting for the day of birth to arrive. Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. We spend a month pregnant with the anticipation of the Savior’s imminent arrival.
There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of his actual coming. Life rages on and we forget the incarnation means God actually lived among us, that Jesus didn’t just go from angelic baby in a manger to resurrection. In between he cried out to the father in agony “I can’t do this!” and asked for the cup to pass from him. He lived in the pain with us. He still does.
Reading Lauren Winner’s Wearing God right before Advent this year had me thinking more literally than metaphorically about birth. I squirmed uncomfortably, as I am sure others do when they hear the graphic details of other’s birth stories, when I imagined Jesus’ birth truly for the first time in my life: “As the contractions pick up, Jesus would sense that he was being squeezed. His head helps stretch Mary’s cervix open.”
“Do I really want a God with a body?” Winner asks. “Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?” It’s easier to hold Jesus at arm’s length, to live a sanitized version of Christmas. If he peacefully slipped into the world one silent night long ago, I can relegate him to the corners of my life, packed away with the manger scenes to be brought out once a year...
I spent the better part of the first six months of our international move neglecting to care for myself in any consistent way. My attempts were sporadic and felt selfish. I knew I needed time on my mat each day as my muscles ached with the need to stretch after hours of sedentary language study. But in March I was still working through the 30-days of yoga series I started in January. I was tired all the time dealing with culture shock and a new...well, everything. But there was homework to finish and children's homework to finish and so many more things to do than I had hours in the day.
I knew I was heading towards burnout fast and some of the ways to avoid it, but I let it happen anyway. Anxiety and depression hit hard. And then I had nothing good left to give anyone. I spent the better part of the next few months just trying to function and heal. Self-care didn't seem selfish anymore. At the encouragement of a coach/counselor, my husband, and my boss to name a few—I realized I couldn't do it all without taking some time to care for my self. And that didn't mean sporadically working out or praying when the work was done. In the state I found myself, I couldn't hear God and I couldn't be what anyone around me needed.
“We're not actually responsible for everything in the world or even in our own lives, so we don't need to act as if we are.” - April Yamasaki
I know my tendencies to want to take the reigns instead of letting God be in control, my desire for perfection and thinking I can work my way to it. But when a counselor told me that my desire even to want to protect everyone and meet everyone's else's needs was also pride and control, I was stunned. Here I thought I was serving people and taking care of my family but I was trying to be God for them. I needed to step out of the way and make space for Him to work in my life and in the lives of others.
It was about that time that I was able to read April Yamasaki's new book Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. Her words echoed the warnings against pride and the need to take care of my self to better care for others. Hers were the words I needed to hear.
“In our day a high interest in self-care seems to move in the opposite direction toward disengagement, withdrawal, and focusing on one's self to the exlusion of larger social concerns...What concerns do you have for social and structural change in our world and in your own life? In what ways does self-care empower you to engage these?” - April Yamasaki
If you're anything like me "self-care" can feel selfish because popular culture has turned self-care into ideas of pampering and taking time out for yourself, solitude or vacations, and things that don't seem to fit into everyday life. I see people on social media talking about self-care and think, "yeah, that would be nice if we all had time off or disposable income." I like a good day to myself as much as the next mom and do make time for it every now and then. But this kind of self-care wasn't what I was looking for and it wasn't going to be what healed me. I needed to find ways to care for my whole self on a daily basis. I also wanted to find ways to be whole so that I could engage with the needs around me.
That is why April Yamasaki's words were so refreshing. She writes in a practical and relatable way about holistic care for your mind, your body, spirit, and soul, and how to do so in a way that sets healthy rhythms for your daily life so you can care for others with a full and equipped heart.
Yamasaki talks about ways to care for your heart (like boundaries and community), your soul (Sabbath, lament, and self-discipline), your mind (focus, your digital world, mental health, renewing your mind), and your strength (sleep, food, health). I have never thought about some of these areas as self-care before and certainly never considered the ramifications on my ability to connect with God and others as a result of my own well-being.
“If we are to love God, we need to listen. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to listen. As far as great commandments go, listening ranks right up there with loving. Listening and loving go together." - April Yamasaki
I talk a lot about listening to God, about wanting to hear His voice. I know there are things in my life I need to keep attuned to be able to listen. But Four Gifts also reminded me that to listen to and love our neighbor well we need this attunement as well. So whether you need a little tune-up or a complete overhaul of your self-care, I hope Four Gifts can bring you closer to listening and loving well.
Listening with you,