Self-care in the empty nest.

When I was a young, working mother of two, I would not have recognized self-care if it tied me to a massage table and kneaded my back. 

It’s not that I never did anything relaxing or fun, but I wasn’t purposeful about taking care of my self.

I tried to give my body what it needed—healthy eating, exercise, sleep, regular healthcare screenings. And I cared for my mental health by seeing a therapist from time to time. 

There were get-togethers with friends over drinks, and the occasional movie or “retail therapy.” Once or twice, I got a massage, although I felt guilty about spending the money. I tried to meditate, but usually just fell asleep.

I gardened—my passion—although it was less about being zen in nature than it was trying to achieve an unrealistic grand vision of Better-Homes-&-Gardens-worthy landscaping and flower beds. In fact, I used to joke that my goal was a maintenance-free garden and I was busting my ass every weekend to get there.

My life wasn’t completely devoid of nurturing experiences, but I didn’t know what my soul and my spirit needed. I rarely thought about what my self needed to function at its best.

What does your self need to function at its best?

In the 1980s and 90s, when my sons were little, self-care wasn’t part of the public discourse. “Managing stress” was the catchphrase of the day, often used in the context of time management, productivity, and work-life balance

(Here’s an interesting timeline of the self-care concept. Did you know it was promoted by the Black Panthers in the 1970s as a political act, a means of staying resilient in the face of systemic racism?)

I was well aware of stress—as a working mother and part-time grad student, it was baked into my life. In fact, I developed and taught stress management workshops in my early days as a health educator. I understood stress but did little to alleviate it.

And I didn’t see the bigger picture of what I needed. I was too busy trying to keep my head above the choppy waters of motherhood. 

Fast forward to 2022. Self-care permeates the web. But what exactly is it, anyway?

What does self-care mean?

The International Self-Care Foundation (yes, it’s a thing) defines self-care as the “preservation of wellness in healthy people, to help prevent the epidemic of lifestyle diseases.”

I don’t like this focus on disease prevention and neglect of people who aren’t healthy.

I prefer this definition:

“Self-care is the mindset, activities, practices and habits we bring to bear against stress, unhappiness, illness, depression and many more negative emotions.

In other words:

Self-care enhances our ability to manage life. Share on X

By “manage life,” I mean these benefits, to name a few: boosting immunity, helping to manage chronic diseases, and potentially lengthening life.

Just think–all that from soaking in a tub, if that’s your thing. And that’s an important distinction–it’s not self-care if it doesn’t work for you. Think about what nourishes your spirit. Is it petting a dog? Hiking a nature trail? Lighting candles?

For more ideas, and to see how your current practice adds up, take this quiz.

(One caveat as you look over these lists: Avoid the temptation to engage in practices for the purpose of being more productive. Increasing productivity is a worthy goal, but it’s not the point of self-care.)

Self-care vs. after-care.

Therapist and best-selling author Nedra Glover Tawwab (you may remember her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace that I promoted in my September 2021 newsletter) has a deeper take on this topic. She says what most of us practice isn’t self-care, but after-care.

According to Tawwab, after-care is what we do after we’ve been diminished or depleted. When we “can’t take it anymore.” When we “need a vacation.” After-care, therefore, is reactive.

Self-care, however, is proactive. It is what we do “to stay well, to maintain [our] peace no matter what is happening.” It prepares us to handle the challenges when they arrive.

Such wisdom, isn’t it? I bet you and I have at least one foot in the after-care camp. Watch Tawwab’s Instagram Reel here.

So now that my empty nest gives me the literal and figurative space to practice true, proactive self-care, and now that I know how important it is, here’s a shortlist of my favorites and my commitments to them this year.

Five self-care practices for empty-nesters (and other equally deserving folks).

  • Take a bath. Just think—no toddlers banging on the door! In the cold months, at least, I’m committing to soaking in a tub once a week (whether I need it or not).
  • Rest when you are sick. Just think–no teens to pick up from basketball practice! I’ve had chronic digestive problems since 2013. Managing it sucks up so much of my day, I often refuse to rest when my symptoms are at their worst. Powering through discomfort is a useful life skill and sometimes effective tactic, but if you ignore your body when it needs to heal, you may be doing more harm than good. Going forward, I commit to resting as soon as I need to.
  • Cocoon. This is great for Highly Sensitive People like me, who are easily over-stimulated by even common day-to-day noise and interaction. I get in bed, pull the covers over my head, and, ten minutes later, emerge with renewed energy. In practice, this is technically after-care, but I commit to doing it once a week to be proactive.
  • Meditate. I recently returned to my almost daily twenty-minute meditation habit. It’s nothing fancy or complicated. I sit in a chair, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing. I commit to continuing this practice.
  • Smile, especially when you don’t feel like it. Research shows even fake smiling can trick your brain into a more positive state. I’m smiling now as I write this. Are you?

As we age and our bodies get more particular about what we do and don’t do, self-care becomes more and more of a priority. I hope you’ll take some time to develop a practice that gives your self exactly what it needs.

Will you make a commitment? If so, please share your ideas in the comments below so we can all be inspired. Or, send me a private message here.


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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