As we head into the new year with all our resolutions to do better and be more efficient, to eat better and be more compassionate, more generous and more buff, I’m reminded of a word I wrote on a Post-it note and stuck to my desk calendar a few weeks before Christmas.
The word, an unfamiliar concept to me and a lot of mothers I know, is simply “Rest.”
I’d written it down as a reminder of a conversation I had with Meg Wolff, a cancer survivor and lifestyle consultant I met at a healthy-eating retreat earlier in the year.
By the time she was 41, Meg had suffered two bouts of cancer seven years apart. She’d had chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, first to remove a cancerous leg and seven years later, a breast. Doctors told her after her mastectomy that she would have cancer again in a year and that she should consider a bone-marrow transplant. She instead began embracing alternative options, beginning with a plant-based, macrobiotic diet of whole grains, beans and vegetables. She credits the diet with helping her recover not only from cancer, but ulcerative colitis, panic attacks, sleep disturbances, allergies and heart arrhythmia.
But food wasn’t the only thing that saved her.
“Food is No. 1,” said Meg, a mother of two who today is 15 years cancer-free, a macrobiotic diet consultant and the author of several books, including “Becoming Whole: The Story of My Complete Recovery from Breast Cancer.” “But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s important to look at everything in our life that is unhealthy if we want real change. Overwork is a biggie. We need to look at our relationships.”
The wisdom Meg spoke to me that day resonated. I already believed that mind, body and spirit are connected, that relationships and lifestyle choices have an effect on our physical health, and vice versa.
But it was what she said next that made me melt.
“My best advice is to give yourself a break. Rest and become your own best friend. Become a kind mother to yourself.”
I felt myself fall into these words like my great-grandmother’s fluffy goose-down mattress. It was as if I had been needing permission all these many years to take care of myself. And I am not the only one. Going on to tell this story to several women friends, I watched their bodies instantaneously change – their faces loosen, their eyes relax, their shoulders drop at the very idea of rest as a right.
Clearly we women, especially we mothers, are not good at recognizing or accepting our own need for rest and respite, especially when others need our care. That we care for others before ourselves is legend, a “condition of womanhood that has existed through time,” says psychologist Dr. Deborah Khoshaba.
We women often learn the hard way, pushing ourselves to be everything to everybody until, like Meg – and her mother, who died of colon cancer at 69 – we get sick. Only then do we look at these things.
“I watched my loving mother do the same thing,” Meg told me. “She took care of everyone else but herself. She put herself last. When that happens, we can easily start eating junk, or sugar for energy, fast food and other less-than-nourishing foods. We’re not taking the time and the care we need to feed and nourish ourselves. And to rest.
“I’ve observed a lot of women in the past 15 years, and I see this same pattern in many of my clients,” she said. “No one is going to tell you to sit down and read the paper or a novel. You have to become your own best friend and encourage yourself.”
I, too, pushed beyond my limits, going to bed late with my husband and waking up early with the children, not asking for help when I could or should have, eating junk food standing at the kitchen counter while the kids had full-course meals sitting down.
And then one day, a doctor said to me, “You have chronic lymphocytic leukemia.”
I have yet to need treatment for this slow-simmering disease of the immune system, which I hope to continue holding off with a macrobiotic diet and by striving to improve other areas of my life.
I also believe now, after my conversation with Meg, that part of health and healing has nothing to do with striving at all. It is significant that all the tension released from my body when she said the word “rest,” that every time I see that word on that Post-it note, I feel my body drop into a place of relaxation. My body apparently already knows what my mind is still trying to accept.
And so I resolve this year to spend more time doing just this.