By Lynn Roberts
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. ~ Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light 1988
On the eve of my 52nd birthday, I realized that I was not well.
I was mentally drained not only from the pressing demands of the academic industrial complex, but also my own inability, as Audre Lorde says, “to repress knowledge of the world’s cruelty.” Teaching four courses, advising students, managing a research project, serving on a faculty search committee, collaborating with a wide range of community organizations to launch a social justice film series, submit a federal research grant, and host a mayoral candidate forum had all stretched me beyond my limits.
I was completely enervated and unable to crawl out of bed on weekends, prepare nutritious meals, or spend meaningful time in solitude or with beloved friends and family to replenish my body, mind and spirit. My greatest fear was losing close connection with my youngest son, a freshman in high school, during his journey into manhood. I would not have this time with him again. I worried I would lose my home. Worrying about money led to more careless spending. Mail piled up and bills lapsed. I fell into a well of despair so deep, I could not see a way to climb out of it.
I was reminded of how my ancestral sister warriors Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Fannie Lou Hamer had each been denied their right to fulfill what Lorde describes in The Cancer Journals as, “the need of every woman to live a considered life” to preserve their health. Inspired by the newest generation of badass sister warriors, such as Alexis Pauline Gumbs and The Crunk Feminist Collective, I gave myself permission to take a mental health break and submitted the necessary paper work for a paid leave of absence for the fall semester (thank you Family Medical Leave Act). This proved to be one of my boldest acts of self-preservation. Ever.
With Audre’s words above echoing in my head (and the support of my therapist), I was resolute that I not only deserved, but was entitled to care for myself and to do so unapologetically.
The necessity for that consideration grows and deepens as one faces directly one’s own mortality and death. Self-scrutiny and evaluation of our lives, while painful, can be rewarding and strengthening journeys toward a deeper self. For as we open ourselves more and more to the genuine conditions of our lives, women become less and less willing to tolerate those conditions unaltered, or to passively accept external and destructive controls over our lives and our identities. (The Cancer Journals, 1980)
I have been a parent since I was 17 years old (all of my adult life). It is my longest and strongest identity. So, it is no surprise that I gravitate towards the role of caregiver in many other facets of my life. Indeed, if I had not taken this time to care for myself, I also would not have been available to care for and support my 22-year-old daughter as we welcomed my first granddaughter into the world when a life-threatening gestational condition, HELLP syndrome, necessitated an emergency C-section at only 32 weeks (thank you Affordable Care Act). Being thrust back into the role of full-time caregiver, once removed, to a prematurely born (and incredibly cute) brand new human being presented yet another challenge to and motivation for my newly embraced credo of self-care.
During this time away from the academy, I have spent time healing. I practiced being still and wasting time. I re-joined my community chorus. I went to see films and hear music I love. I spent meaningful time with my four children, both individually and all together. I played with my three grandchildren. I grew even more in like and love with my partner who lives on the opposite coast. I expanded my circle of bold and fierce feminist sister and brother warriors.
As I prepare for my re-entry to academic life in just a few weeks, I carry with me a renewed commitment to myself:
- To care for myself as well as I care for others.
- To allow others to care for me.
- To say “no” or “not now, maybe later” more often.
- To say “yes” only when I mean it.
- To survive.
Lynn Roberts has a BS in human development from Howard University and a PhD in Human Services Studies from Cornell University. She has been a faculty member in the Urban Public Health and Women and Gender Studies programs at Hunter College of the City University of New York since 1998. Prior to Hunter, she oversaw the development, implementation and evaluation of several programs for women and youth in NYC. She served ten years on the founding board of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and is currently co-editing an anthology on reproductive justice.
Dr. Roberts’ current activism and scholarship examines the intersection of race, class and gender in adolescent dating relationships, juvenile justice and reproductive health policies; as well as the impact of models of collaborative inquiry and teaching on civic and political engagement. She is honored to be the mother of four amazing human beings (ages 16-34) and lives in constant awe of her three grandchildren.